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Robert B. Parker interview on Double Play

This time, famous Red Sox fan Robert B. Parker didn't bring the Yankees cap he normally uses to hide from hostile New Yorkers.

He didn't need it.

His new novel, "Double Play" — a rare departure from his best-selling Spenser series — is a home-run thriller about Jackie Robinson in 1947, when the eventual Hall of Famer broke major league baseball's color line by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Could it get more New York than that?

Teaming with Robinson is Joseph Burke, a fictional character Parker created. He's hired by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to be Robinson's bodyguard for the history-making season.

Burke is strong and street-wise, was grievously wounded on Guadalcanal — and white.

Together they endure confrontations with the mob, gangland murder threats and big-city corruption.

Yet, little was as bad, Parker says, as the real racism directed at Robinson. "I agree with Gunnar Myrdahl, that 'race is the American problem,'" he says, frowning during an interview at the Carlyle hotel, where he stays on his visits from Boston. "Still is — followed by that mess in Iraq."

He has interspersed sections of "Double Play" with first-person reminiscences of a boy called Bobby, who grew up loving baseball, his father, the romance of war and the music that dominated the era following Parker's birth in 1932.

Popular songs from the '40s waft through the novel too, and Parker can still sing many of them.

They are part of what makes this nearly his most personal book.

Some of the violence in "Double Play" is reserved for Lauren Roach, the beautiful, troubled-with-a-capital-T Park Avenue princess who may just turn out to be the love of the emotionally scarred Burke's life.

As Parker says, "I do believe in the redemptive quality of love. If you can love someone genuinely, it tends to save you."

Joan, his wife of 48 years, fits that bill, he says. The first time Burke lays eyes on Lauren, "she set her cigarette into a big abalone shell ash tray and let it burn." Parker was 3 when he encountered young Joan at a birthday party.

"She smashed me in the face with an ice-cream cone. She always was tougher than me — until recently," he says, flexing the muscles he has built up through weightlifting. "The next time was at the introductory freshman dance at Colby College, across a crowded room." He starts crooning "Some Enchanted Evening" in a respectable baritone.

Loyal as the New England-bred author is to the Red Sox, he knows exactly how slow they were to integrate. "Not until 1959," he says, "12 years after Jackie."

Robinson had tried out for the Sox before the Dodgers, Parker points out, along with two or three others. "But someone alleged to have been [Boston manager] Joe Cronin yelled, 'Get those niggers off the field!'"

"Double Play" suggests that the bond forged between Burke and Robinson may withstand the test of time and discrimination.

But you never know. Parker says he doesn't have a single African-American friend.

"I did have lots growing up," in New Bedford, Mass., he says, "and a close friend, Gene Floyd, in college. We lost touch."

In "Double Play's" autobiographical sections, Parker puzzles through why as a youngster he wasn't racist, despite his parents, who shared the prejudices of their environment.

In therapy, which he entered when he and his wife separated for two years, Parker learned, "I tend to identify with the victim. And at around 12, Sinclair Lewis' 'Kingsblood Royal'" — a melodramatic novel about racial identity — "made a big impact on me."

He never joined the civil-rights movement, either, "because I'm not an organization person. The only organization I ever belonged to sent me to Korea." His preference was solitude with a radio and voices like Red Barber's, who was the announcer on Robinson's pioneering Dodgers games.

"Barber was a Southerner, and his initial reaction was negative," Parker remembers. "But he also perceived himself as a reporter. So the way he put it when Robinson first walked out of the dugout was, 'Jackie Robinson is very definitely a brunette.'

"I could almost see it — his black face, the white uniform, the green field.

"Still can."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Daily News, May 30th 2004 - available online at: www.nydailynews.com/front/story/198433p-171334c.html

Copyright: Daily News L.P.

About Double Play

RELATED LINKS

The Spensarium

Bullets And Beer

RBParker's author page on NEP

Robert B. Parker's official website

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