Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn

by Alan Lelchuk (USA)

In the last 100 years of Major League baseball, there have been dozens of great and revered baseball players, including its heroes; Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and its legends Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and Lou Gehrig. Perhaps the most honored and commemorated baseball player has been #42, Jackie Robinson. Why? Because Robinson did something for and through baseball that no other great player had ever done. Jackie broke new baseball ground, broke through the racial boundary; and thereby, changing the complexion of professional baseball forever. Gradually, Robinson broke yet another wider barrier, the psychological boundary in the collective consciousness of American society regarding the image of the Black man. Before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, before Civil Rights Legislation and Black Power, before Barack Obama, there was Jackie. Through baseball—the national pastime—Robinson profoundly changed America.

First as a young boy and fan and later as a mature citizen, Alan Lelchuk’s memoir, On Home Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn reflects upon the changes wrought by the Brooklyn Dodger’s first baseman. On Home Ground traces how the borough of Brooklyn greeted the first African American in the Major League, how the community grew with Jackie, adopted him, and celebrated him.

What was viewed early on as a mere sports story quickly became a subject of riveting news for the nation. Brooklyn became as much at the center of the story as Jackie. It was not an accident that Branch Rickey, the sensible and shrewd general manager of the Dodgers who brought Jackie into baseball, decided upon the Borough of Kings to venture forth his great gamble. Brooklyn was a community of nearly three million by 1947, and more importantly, it was a borough of great diversity, populated by a diverse immigrant population. Citizens of Brooklyn, especially the young fans like Lelchuk, were a pioneering audience and jury for Jackie. If the experiment succeeded here, it would succeed across the river and elsewhere.

Waiting for his hero’s autograph, Alan Lelchuk met Jackie twice outside Ebbets Field. When Alan Lelchuk was nine years old, he waited for Jackie outside the players’ exit with his scorecard. The first time, Jackie was walking with a small group of players, and after getting a few autographs from other Dodgers—Hermanski, Roe, Reese—Alan asked for Jackie’s autograph. Robinson signed Alan’s scorecard in a small legible handwriting and then looked at Alan, asking his name. It was a brief meeting, a fleeting minute, as other fans waited for signatures. The second meeting was longer, Alan caught Jackie as he was walking alone, carrying his bag, wearing his tan raincoat. Amazingly, Robinson stared at Alan, remembering the young boy.

“You’re Alan,” Jackie said, in his high gravelly voice, and Alan nodded, surprised. He continued to peer at Alan, and Robinson asked something like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Alan was quick to respond, “A baseball player,” but swiftly added: “But really, a writer of books.”

“What sort? inquired Robinson. Oh, maybe I’ll be a sportswriter, or a writer of adventure books.” Alan added. Jackie nodded, scribbled his greeting, gave it back to Alan, and put his hand on the young boy’s shoulder, and said, “Stay on course.” It was a meeting to remember— Alan was a boy of nine, and Jackie was at the age of twenty-seven, the Major League’s most famous player. The exchange between the boy and his idol stayed with Alan, through the years of college and graduate school and he revisited these two remarkable meetings as he embarked his career as a writer. Lelchuk believes that it is only through a personal perspective that the well-told narrative can be enhanced and enlivened with fresh insight and fresh eyes. His hope is that the fabled icon would find himself most vividly portrayed and felt here, back then as it happened, within these more personal and intimate lines.

On Brooklyn Boy:

“Mr. Lelchuk’s contemporaries will be delighted with the full accounting he gives of the home turf.” —Saul Bellow

Alan Lelchuk, author of highly acclaimed novels, such as American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground, has won Guggenheim and Fulbright Awards, and his work has been praised by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Benjamin DeMott, William Pritchard, and Wilfred Sheed. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.