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TALES OF SORROW AND JOY MEMOIRS ABOUT JACKIE ROBINSON AND BUCK O'NEIL ARE DIAMETRIC OPPOSITES

July 08, 1996
July 08, 1996

Table of Contents
July 8, 1996

TALES OF SORROW AND JOY MEMOIRS ABOUT JACKIE ROBINSON AND BUCK O'NEIL ARE DIAMETRIC OPPOSITES

In Stealing Home (HarperCollins, $24), Jackie Robinson's
daughter, Sharon, has written what the book's subtitle suggests
is "an intimate family portrait." And the book's cover photo
shows the famous father and his beautiful wife, Rachel, holding
three laughing children. Inside, however, a far less pretty
picture is revealed.

This is an article from the July 8, 1996 issue

It's not that Jackie Robinson didn't make every effort to
establish a happy household, particularly after he retired from
his epochal career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was an earnest
and caring father. And Rachel was the perfect mother, attentive,
affectionate and, when she had to be, stern. How could either of
them have known that their lives would become a Danielle Steel
novel? That, regrettably, is the way Sharon has written her
memoir, sprinkling it with soggy sentences on the order of,
"Michael held my hand for what seemed like an eternity and spoke
with a deep, passionate voice," and, "Our thirst for politics
and each other was insatiable."

Foremost in this litany of disasters was the tragedy of the
Robinsons' elder son, who, shrinking from the burden of being
Jack Roosevelt Robinson Jr., dropped out of high school, joined
the U.S. Army and, while serving in Vietnam, became a drug
addict. Jackie Sr. seemed to have been unaware of the
seriousness of his son's decline until Jackie Jr. was arrested
on drug and gun charges. To his credit, Jackie Sr. took up the
boy's cause, and Jackie Jr. did, after a painful struggle,
finally kick the habit. Then, in the cruelest blow of all, he
was killed at age 24 in an auto accident.

Meanwhile Sharon, she writes, married at 18, divorced a short
time later on grounds of abuse and, while still in her teens,
married again. That union also ended in divorce. It is unclear
from the book whether she married a third partner with whom she
had a child before she and the man split up. Sharon is a
survivor, though, and she is now employed as a
nurse-midwife--"ushering," as she puts it, "new life into this
world."

Her father lived long enough to see her, at least partially, put
her life in order. Then, prematurely aged by diabetes, he died
at 53 of a heart attack. "No grave can hold this body down,"
said his friend Jesse Jackson at the funeral. "It belongs to the
ages."

Why this should be so is something Sharon doesn't devote much
space to telling us, mainly because she wasn't yet born when her
father made history as the first African-American player in the
major leagues. But another autobiographer, Negro leagues veteran
Buck O'Neil, was acutely aware of Jackie Robinson's
significance, as he tells us in his delightful book I Was Right
on Time (Simon & Schuster, $23), written with Steve Wulf and
David Conrads. O'Neil was serving in the Philippines with an
all-black U.S. Navy stevedore unit in October 1945 when Robinson
signed with the Dodgers. "You should have heard the
celebration," he writes. "Halfway around the world from
Brooklyn, we started hollering and shouting and firing our guns
into the air."

O'Neil's book is written in such a graceful, conversational
manner that the author, now nearing 85, seems to be sitting in
your living room. "You see," he writes, "I don't have a bitter
story." Indeed, it is a most happy one, as O'Neil affectionately
recalls Negro leagues luminaries such as Satchel Paige, Josh
Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and John Henry (Pop) Lloyd.

Robinson's signing, though a cause for jubilation, spelled the
end of the Negro leagues and created, inevitably, some envy
among other black stars, notably the great Paige--who, O'Neil
believes, might have had an easier time breaking in than
Robinson did. "Satchel was a superstar, and the whole country
knew about him," O'Neil says. "People would have seen him as an
individual...people saw Jackie as a symbol."

Paige, of course, did get his chance in the majors, in his 40's.
And so did O'Neil, first with the Chicago Cubs as a scout--he
discovered Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock--and then,
in 1962, as the big leagues' first African-American coach.

"I've said it before, I'll say it now, and I'll say it again,"
O'Neil writes. "I was right on time."

B/W PHOTO: NATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY & ARCHIVE, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.Negro leagues star O'Neil (below) says Satchel Paige would have been his choice to break the color line. [Buck O'Neil]