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Book Reviews: "The Cubs" and "First Class Citizenship"

While we all wait for a move, any move, by the Cubs, I have spent some time reading the large pile of unread books that I never had time for during the season.

A couple of you already have Glenn Stout's "The Cubs", winning it as a prize in a BCB contest. One more BCB reader will win one in our "Free Agent Frenzy" contest. Incidentally, I haven't yet decided what to do with the numbers you have all assigned to Barry Bonds in that contest. It seems likely that Bonds' career is over, but you never know.

Anyway, about "The Cubs": Glenn Stout is an avowed Red Sox fan. For that, he can certainly be forgiven; his first work of this type was a history of his own favorite team, and as you can see in the link above, he has also authored histories of the Yankees and Dodgers.

"The Cubs" is a big, thick book. It's 480 pages in hardcover, but the paperback edition that the publisher sent me to use as prizes in BCB contests is even longer. It's a definitive history of the franchise, dating back even before the National League began in 1876. We all know that the Cubs are the only major league franchise to stay in the same city since the NL began that year; but Stout shows that there's an unbroken chain that goes back to the beginning of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871.

Every bit of club history is covered in great detail -- from the great clubs of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the failures of the College of Coaches (Stout pulls no punches in reminding us how utterly inept that was). Both great and not-so-great players are profiled, so that you get a real flavor of how the history of the Cubs has been made. There are photos you have seen -- Three-Finger Brown's hand, and the "Homer in the Gloamin'" photo -- and many you likely haven't, as there were many photos in this book that I had never seen before.

A lot of you are in your 20's and 30's and grew up with the Ryne Sandberg era Cubs as your first Cub memories. If you're in that group, this book is a great introduction to many eras in Cubs history that you may not have been aware of; beyond that, for a Cub fan of any age, it covers everything, and is painstakingly researched and well written. The stereotypical thing to say here is that it's a "great Hanukkah or Christmas gift", but that really is true. If you don't get it, buy it for yourself.

"First Class Citizenship" is a collection of letters written both by and to Jackie Robinson from 1947 until his untimely death in 1972. But that statement barely scratches the surface of how astonishing this collection is. Edited by Michael B. Long, assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, it's subtitled "The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson", and Long, in a preface, tells how he stumbled upon these letters:

"Have you seen the Jackie Robinson file?"

I was conducting research on President Richard Nixon at the National Archives in Laguna Beach, California, when the archivist Paul Wormser approached my desk with that beautiful question.

It was December 2005, and while the Robinson file was beyond my immediate research topic, I could not resist the delicious temptation.

Long continues:
Here, at last, was a Jackie Robinson far beyond the baseball diamond. An angry black man who grabbed a pen and wrote rage-filled letters about segregation and discrimination. A fiery prophet who rebuked politicians for telling African Americans to exercise patience and forbearance when pursuing their constitutional rights. A fervent patriot committed to using his celebrity status and considerable resources to overcome the racial divide right now so that his children would have a brighter, bolder future.
Long wrote to Robinson's widow, Rachel, to ask permission to compile the letters into a book, which she graciously granted. They include:
... civil rights letters to so many major historical figures (Malcolm X, Barry Goldwater, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Nelson Rockefeller) and about so many controversial topics (black power, the Vietnam War, divisions within the civil rights movement). And his letters sparked substantive replies that reflected America’s running conversation about politics and race and economics.
Without making any comment about the political positions taken (Robinson himself stated in many of these letters that he considered himself neither a Democrat nor a Republican, voted for the individual, and for example, supported Nixon enthusiastically for president in 1960 but by 1968 was a staunch opponent of his) -- this book is a treasure trove of the history of the civil rights movement seen through the eyes of someone who played a pivotal role in it. The letters show him as a complicated man, far different than the way I had perceived him from simply knowing of his performance on the baseball diamond. "First Class Citizenship" is also well worth your time. Don't miss it.