Play steps back in time to meet Jackie Robinson

‘Jackie and Me’ stars Reginald Pierre and Kurt Hellerich.

By Virginia Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

“Jackie and Me”, a story about a young fan who travels back in time to meet baseball great Jackie Robinson, resonates with audiences on several levels, says Matt Neufeld, managing director of the Metro Theater Company. The company targets young audiences, but strives to present plays that appeal to all ages. 

“We found that there are lots of points of entry into this play,” Neufeld said. “Maybe they’re baseball fans. Maybe they play with Little Leagues. Or they are passionate about the civil rights movement and racial equity. There are a lot of conversations that can spin off from this play. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, may have a special appeal to Jewish Light readers.  

“When we researched this story, I remember one book (“Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball”) described how Jews, especially in Brooklyn, made Jackie Robinson an icon,” Neufeld said. “They believed he exemplified the promise of equality in America, and Robinson himself saw a unique connection between Jews and blacks.

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“My dad grew up in Flatbush in Brooklyn when Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, and he remembers how proud everyone in the neighborhood was of Jackie. He felt that his community cheered Jackie just like they cheered Hank Greenberg. Jackie and Hank were friends and, as a Jew in the major leagues, Hank also dealt with his fair share of abuse.  Greenberg was one of those friends who advised Jackie that the best way to combat the slurs from the opposing players was to beat them on the field.”

Dan Gutman, the author of the book on which the play is based, grew up in Newark, N.J., in the 1960s in a Jewish family. 

“I went to Hebrew School several years,” he said. “We used to light the candles at Hanukkah. But my parents were not religious.”

Gutman spoke by phone recently about the play and his book.

Tell me about the story that the play is based on.

I wrote a book (with the same title) that came out in 1999. It’s part of a series about this kid who has the power to travel through time, using a baseball card. There are 11 books in the series now; this was the second one. The kid, Joe, is a white kid living in Louisville, Ky. He gets an assignment to write about a famous African-American for Black History Month. As part of his research, he decides to go back in time and meet Jackie Robinson. 

He gets what he wishes for. He’s able to experience what Jackie Robinson experiences. That is, when he wakes up in 1947, he’s an African-American kid. He not only gets to see Jackie Robinson play, but he experiences being a black kid in America in the 1940s.  So kids will not only read a cool story about baseball, but they learn about racial prejudice in America. 

 What do you think of the stage adaptation?

I’ve seen the play, in New York, the week after Hurricane Sandy hit. The play is fantastic. Steven Deitz did a wonderful job adapting it.

The character, Joe, is a 12-year-old boy. How much of Joe is you?

 A little bit. In the first book, on Honus Wagner, the kid is based on my own little league experiences growing up. I was good at catching and throwing but could not hit the ball. In that first book, he’s upset that his parents yelled at him, and he wishes he could be a grown-up. And when he wakes up, he is.

In your biography posted online, you don’t shy away from painful childhood memories. You say your father left the family when you were 12.  How has that experience shaped your life and your writing? 

I was the same age as Joe. Most of the books I write are for that age group, and the main characters are usually that age. It was also in a baseball situation. My dad dropped me off at a “little” league game, June 1, 1968. When I came home after the game, he was gone. He abandoned my mom, sister and me and moved to Florida. I didn’t speak to him again for 10 years. 

In this series, Joe’s parents are divorced. He has a tense relationship with his father, but they do have a relationship. His mother and father live in the same town.

Every so often when I’m visiting a school or on my website, a kid will raise his hand and ask me about it. There’s a hush over the room. But I think it’s good. I know a whole lot of kids sitting there, their parents are splitting up. I want them to understand, it’s not the end of the world. It made me a stronger person.

What about the Jackie Robinson story appealed to you?

The players I write about are not always the great players or nice people, but I can build an interesting story around them. What Jackie Robinson went through in his rookie season — the verbal abuse, the death threats, his teammates asked to be traded, other players refused to play against him. The way he handled the situation was so heroic. It’s a good history lesson for kids to understand.

For 60 years, African-Americans were not allowed to play in the national leagues. Kids today cannot comprehend that. It’s inconceivable there was a day when a black man couldn’t play baseball, that they had separate water fountains or restaurants or schools. 

What are the main issues you wanted to bring out in the story?

The message of the book is that when you’re bullied or people are giving you a hard time, the best way to deal with it is the way Jackie Robinson dealt with it. That is, not fight back with your fists or your mouth or sulk or write angry letters. But do what he did. He said, “I’m going to show how good I am and earn their respect and admiration.” It’s a good lesson: If people are giving you a hard time, show how good you are.