From the Desk of James Johnson: Great Reads Begin with Great Research

The following is from James W. Johnson, author of The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett (February 2018). Johnson is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson. 


Great Reads Begin with Great Research

Authors are often asked two questions about their books: How did you come up with the idea, and how long did it take you to write the book?

In the case of my new book, The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett, the idea stemmed from a book I wrote eleven years ago. In researching for The Wow Boys, about the 1939 and 1940 Stanford football teams, I learned that the Indians, as they were known then, played against UCLA and their black players.

I thought it was interesting that the Bruins had four black players at a time when few teams in predominately white schools had an African American suit up for them, less than forty to be a exact. Few earned much playing time unless they were considerably better than the white players.

UCLA, which was a relatively new school, had little success on the gridiron. Coaches decided they needed the best players available, black or white. Hence the recruiting of the four black players. I stuck that information in the back of my head.

Other projects took precedent before I decided to look further into the UCLA teams of the late 1930s. It was then I also added a fifth athlete, Tom Bradley, who was an all-city high school player who decided to focus on track at UCLA. All four black football players also participated in track and field.

Johnson-Black Bruins.indd

Research led me to the realization that all five of the UCLA athletes went on to acclaim after college. That to me rounded out the story. A friend asked me why a white guy (me) would write about black athletes. I replied, “Because it was a good story.” I hope you agree.

Again that book proves that one thing leads to another. My new book is about nine black track stars who won medals in the 1936 Olympics, often called the Nazi Olympics. Most people can name only one of the U.S. stars in the Berlin games. That would be Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. I have yet to run into anyone among acquaintances who knew who the other medal winners were. That’s where the Black Bruins came in.

Jackie Robinson’s brother Mack finished second in the 200 meters, a hair behind Owens. A couple of other medal winners were Ralph Metcalfe, later to become a U.S. congressman, and James LuValle, who became a Stanford administrator. Others were just as interesting.

It is difficult to measure how much time I spend on a book. As a retiree, writing is less than a full-time endeavor. Traveling and remodeling our house took time away from writing. The writing stretched over a year, including rewriting. I spend just as much time thinking about how I’m going to write so that once I sit down I’m ready to go.

Research is the key. Strong information makes for good reading. So, half of that time was used researching. Research continued as I wrote when I would have questions about previous research. Often that search pulled out something new, which caused revisions.

In the end it’s always a labor of love.

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