When Jackie Robinson broke through Organized Baseball's color barrier by joining the Montreal Royals in 1946, Jules Tygiel had not yet been born. But Tygiel, a 34-year-old associate professor of history at San Francisco State and an ardent baseball buff who still owns a stickball bat, has spent a good part of his adult life studying the Robinson saga, and now he has written the most complete account of it.
In Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (Oxford University Press), scheduled for publication next month, Tygiel traces black involvement in the sport from its beginnings. The first of two excerpts appears in SI this week, starting on page 62: It deals with the signing of Robinson in 1945 and his 1946 debut with the Royals, in the racial climate of those days. More significant, it's a fresh look—with much new information—at an episode in sports history more complex than older fans may remember and than young fans ever knew. Part II, next week, will focus on other blacks brought into Organized Baseball shortly after Robinson, including future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella.
"Being a baseball fan is great training for a historian," he says. "The types of things I did as a kid—learning the statistics of the players and the folklore of the game—have served me well." His love of baseball made his five years of research for Great Experiment, which included a 12,000-mile automobile trip through 33 states in the summer of 1980, a joy. "It was one of the memorable experiences of my life," he says. "I'd get up in the morning and throw myself into my work. In fact, it didn't seem like work."
Tygiel was born and raised a Dodger fan in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He was only eight years old when the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles. "I was crestfallen," he says, and, indeed, he has never forgiven the Bums for skipping town. By the time he'd earned his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1969, he was a passionate Mets fan. Not even six years as a graduate student at UCLA, where he received his M.A. in 1973 and his Ph.D. in 1977, could rekindle any love for his former team.
"My friends and I used to go to Dodger Stadium and root for the Mets," he says. "People would throw hot dogs and peanuts at us in the stands. After a while nobody wanted to sit with us." However, the Mets' trade of his idol, Tom Seaver, to the Reds in 1977, didn't set well with Tygiel, and nowadays the man his father, Gustave, "didn't raise to be a Giants fan" is just that.
He's also the owner/general manager of the Tygiel Productos of the Pacific Ghost League, as well as the league's commissioner. "Every year guys put up $50 to draft a 22-man imaginary major league roster," he says. "We keep standings and statistics in certain categories and make trades." Tygiel's top two players this season are Robin Yount and Dale Murphy—hardly a shabby nucleus—and when old favorite Seaver became available, Tygiel enthusiastically traded for him. "But when a better offer came along," Tygiel says, "I traded my favorite player of all time even-up—for Tommy John."
TYGIEL: A FRESH LOOK AT THE ROBINSON SAGA