By David Mullen
Why would someone write a book on the military court-martial of baseball great Jackie Robinson when it has been an often-told story that was even the subject of a movie?
“Very bluntly, it had not been told correctly,” said author Michael Lee Lanning. “Like most about African American history, it comes from two aspects. People think that it is the most wonderful thing with lots of heroes or it is written from a prejudicial standpoint where [the event] doesn’t deserve what it has and is all played up. Somewhere in-between is the truth.”
Lanning is 73 and was born in Sweetwater. He goes by Lee. “I’ve always gone by Lee,” Lanning said. “I couldn’t spell Michael until I was in high school.” He has written more than 20 books on various aspects of military service and combat.
He is a decorated soldier who served in Vietnam, earning 16 medals and badges including the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal for Valor and the Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters.
His latest book, the newly-released “The court-martial of Jackie Robinson: the baseball legend’s battle for civil rights during World War II,” is a thoroughly researched tome dedicated to addressing previous misrepresentations of the 1944 military trial. Nearly one-third of the book is dedicated to appendices and footnotes. No official record of the Robinson court-martial exists in National or military archives.
“When I read the other books,” Lanning said, “no one had military experience. So, I knew I could put it into perspective. I had been stationed at Fort Hood [in Killeen], grew up in Texas and understood the racial climate at the time. I knew how Fort Hood worked. You can’t judge what went on in 1944 by 2020 standards.” Attached to the all-black 761st Tank Battalion, Robinson was assigned to Camp (now Fort) Hood. He was slated to fight overseas under the command of Gen. George Patton.
“No one had made the key of how important that the court-martial was as a very important aspect of Jackie’s future,” Lanning said. “Had he not been court-martialed, he would have been transferred to Europe with the black tank battalion that took 70 percent of its officers to casualties. He may not have survived the war. If he had, he may have been wounded and not be able to play ball or would have been delayed further in the major leagues. Someone else would have broken the color barrier.”
Robinson integrated baseball in 1947 when he became the first black major league player as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Because of his leadership abilities coupled with three years of study at UCLA, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In 1940, about one percent of the U.S. Army were African Americans, and black officers were scarce. Everyone is familiar with the prejudice Robinson faced in the big leagues, but few are aware of his obstacles in the military.
Even before baseball, Robinson was a champion in fighting for racial equality. Eleven years before the event that Rosa Parks is noted for, Robinson refused to move to the back of a military bus when a racist bus driver demanded that he do so. And that refusal led to an Army court-martial proceeding.
“It just didn’t get the publicity and the country wasn’t ready for it,” Lanning said. “It is almost identical to the Rosa Parks story. Jackie was the character that led the way. Texas buses were segregated, but military buses were not. The story should have been more significant, but there was a war going on.”
Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, famously chose Robinson as the first player to integrate the game. Rickey, acknowledging that his player would face relentless prejudice, was quoted that he was “looking for a fighter with guts enough not to fight back.” Lanning put it another way.
“Rickey spent an enormous amount of money to find out everything they could about him [Robinson],” Lanning said. “He would send three different scouts to the same baseball game that didn’t know each other or were unaware that the other was there to get different reports on how he conducted himself in the minor leagues.
“But because of the court-martial proceedings, Rickey learned that he [Robinson] could stand up and use the correct procedures and process to prove that he was right. I think it was one of the biggest factors in Rickey’s decision. Other than that, he was hugely talented, well-spoken and educated to go with it.”
Robinson went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Dodgers. His number 42 has been retired by every major league baseball team. “He was the second most popular person in America in 1950 behind Bing Crosby,” Lanning recalled. “More popular than Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur and Bob Hope.”
Lanning and his author wife Linda met in Fisher Country and have been married “50-something years.” He is on a strict raw vegan, no sugar and no gluten diet as he battles kidney cancer. He lives in Lampasas so he can be closer to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Sugar breeds cancer,” Lanning said. “I have lived about 12 years longer than they ever thought I would.”
“I wrote the book,” Lanning said, “so that the reader could make up their own mind. It was too good of a story not to be told.” And, like Lee Lanning, the story of the court-martial of Jackie Robinson lives on.