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Play Ball, Jackie! (2011)

Written by Stephen Krensky

Illustrated by Joe Morse

Millbrook Press

Oh, it's a strange thing, reading a book like this to my five year old son, to have it begin with the story of a father and his son going to a baseball game together. For me, I'm immediately digging the details Joe Morse adds in to make us feel like we're really back in the day - New York, 1947 - the clothes, the old trollies, the ads for Coca-Cola - I love stuff like that.

For Arlo, to be immediately taken in by the umpire with wild eyes and lips pulled back, "PLAY BALL!" with all the baseball players and their uniforms out their on the field, surrounded by some 25,000 fans, several dozen if whom are illustrated individually with rich details such that I'm certain any person in the know could pick out which neighborhood they were from. It's not homogeneous. It's frenetic with raised fists.

It's not until several pages in that the true story emerges, as Matty, a young boy, is told by his father how he came across the tickets to Opening Day.

"Free tickets," his father had told him. "One of the guys at work refused to go."

"Really?" said Matty. "He must be crazy."

"Not crazy. Disgusted."

"About what?"

Jackie Robinson. He's the center of the tale, though we see him only through the eyes of others - the enraged eyes of working class bigots, and the incredulous eyes of the open-minded and the innocent.

I think Arlo shares quite a bit in common with Matty, not understanding what the issue was, having to have it explained to him, spelled out. There's no question which side of the debate Matty's father is on.

"I don't care what color they are. Remember, your grandfather came to America from Italy. Lots of people didn't give him a chance either."

And it's a lesson Matty is able to put into practice during the 7th Inning Stretch, when he stands in line behind three kids, two white, one black.

"Just you wait," says the black boy. "Jackie will show you. There are plenty of good black players out there."

Matty returns with a hotdog and a "I'm for Jackie," button, a gift from the boy.

"We met these kids," Matty explains to his proud father. "They didn't think Jackie belonged on the team."


"We straightened them out."

The rest of the narrative follows the game. Krensky takes great care to detail it as it happened, with the names of the players, the scores, the plays, and leading to Jackie scoring a run in, the Dodgers winning the game.

I loved the way Jackie was kept removed, not seeing his thoughts, bit only how the boy imagined Jackie must have felt. It served to keep his stature mythic, larger than life, while at the same time, keeping the story grounded and filled with real, genuine emotion. Not a biographical account or a history lesson, but history-as-mythology.

The book concludes with several photographs of the real Jackie Robinson and a brief biographical note written by the author which concludes with a quote from baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Baseball's proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field.
Click here for more stories about Civil Rights!

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