Daily News Los Angeles
BY TOM HOFFARTH, Columnist
Michael Long was digging through the National Archives in Laguna Beach two years ago, researching a book project about former President Richard Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham.
Before he knew what hit him, Long became a Jackie Robinson fan.
An archivist showed Long a file they had kept full of Robinson's correspondence with Nixon that went back to the late '50s. Long, an assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College who had done books on politics and religion but nothing even remotely related to sports, said he felt as if someone had dropped "gems in my lap" as he immersed himself in Robinson's words about pursuing social justice.
But now, what to do with all this?
Long went back to his Anaheim hotel room. Not much of a sports fan, he happened to flip the TV on to ESPN. There, he saw another story involving an athlete gone bad.
"It was really an epiphanic moment," Long said. "The contrast between these athletes and Jackie could not have been more striking, or disappointing. Who other than Jackie Robinson, a national icon, to show there's still a need for a role model in the world of athletics?"
The result, after dozens more archive searches and the approval of Rachel Robinson, is the new book, "The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson: First Class Citizenship" (Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, $26, 384 pages).
Sixty years after he broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and 35 years after his death, Robinson's voice comes alive with pointed passion, direct anger, admitted frustration and unbowed determination as simply a person who wanted a better world for everyone.
Long found Robinson correspondence with JohnF.Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther KingJr. that focused on the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, segregation and discrimination.
Robinson and Nixon first met in 1952 at the Republican National Convention. Nixon shared a memory he had of Robinson playing football for UCLA in 1939. Robinson was more impressed with Nixon's pro-civil rights statements and ended up supporting him in the 1960 presidential campaign.
Robinson, however, would not side with either Republicans or Democrats in his quest for equality. He stumped for LBJ in '64, Nelson Rockefeller in '68 and Hubert Humphrey in '72. Robinson had respect for Kennedy but was critical of his motives. Robinson wasn't afraid to call Barry Goldwater a "bigot" and "white supremacist" during the '64 campaign, or to exchange ideas with Malcolm X about the right way for African Americans to have a voice in politics.
Robinson wrote to everyone, it seemed. In today's world of e-mails and text messages, it may be difficult to imagine how anyone left as much of an historic paper trail.
One letter in 1956 went to Bill Keefe, sports editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, who had written an editorial suggesting Robinson was the catalyst for a new Louisiana law that criminalized interracial sports.
"I am happy for you, that you were born white," Robinson concludes. "It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise."
The book also sheds more on Robinson's departure from the Dodgers in 1957, when he choose to retire rather than be traded to the rival Giants. Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi wrote to Robinson in '71 asking his thoughts about the Hall of Fame's decision to only allow one former Negro League player in per year. Robinson responded in agreement, and added: "Your action justifies the way I thought of you before the 1957 misunderstanding."
Robinson writes to Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley in '62, admitting his loyalty to Branch Rickey and his "being stubborn" had probably led to a deterioration in his relationship with the team after Rickey left.
Mark Langill, the Dodgers' team historian, said of the book: "I'm glad those other letters are being published because all the letters I've seen from Jackie over the years are always very thoughtful, insightful and sincere, no matter the topic."
Long, who never did his Nixon-Graham book, is more satisfied with this result.
"One of the disappointing things about the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier was so much was ignored about his civil rights work outside of baseball," said Long. "It's easier to look at a smiling Robinson rather than one who was angry and wanted to change society. We've sort of sanitized him and kept him frozen in time. This expands his legacy with a new perspective.
"The media these days focuses so much on the negativity of sports. This is a positive story that Robinson reminds us of. It's really a story about the American dream in many ways."