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Jackie Robinson: my journey of appreciation.

Approximately 120 years after the great Franz Schubert, composer of the imperishable "Unfinished" symphony, was born on a January 31st, Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn's immortal number 42, was born in 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. Quite a combo, or quinella--as they say. I was born just about 20 years after Robinson, in the Brooklyn to which he was to come, and galvanize, only a handful of years after that.

Thus the recurring dream, its salient points teased from the jumbled reality that did happen. Would Freud have called this iterated nocturnal experience wish fulfillment? No matter, the dream persists; its facts did transpire. I'm a small boy, just about seven and a half. I'm holding the hand of, or rather my hand is being held by, Uncle Sol, my favorite uncle, my mother's youngest brother. He's in his early thirties and brimming with vigor, keen interest in a variety of things, and all sorts of vitality. He himself has no children yet, but he is holding my hand ever so gently. We are walking toward Ebbets Field, already in April 1947 the hallowed grounds, the much-heralded home, of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's a cellophane-crackling, fiercely bright, you're-glad-to-be-alive, early spring day. We climb the steep ramps that lead to the seats. Suddenly, through the large apertures visible from these ramps, through the stadium's steel girders, through its thrusts and struts and supports, there appears the green grass and brown base paths. It is the greenest, most vivid green I have ever seen, and the brown of the base paths is an enticing, mellow, rich chocolate, which seems soothingly inviting. The glaring white of the foul lines and of some of the uniforms in pregame batting practice (my uncle has to tell me why hitting, throwing, and running is already going on) adds to the brilliantly colored panorama. I, of course, could not have formed the phrase then, but--in the dream, as it was in reality--it is heart-stoppingly thrilling and extremely beautiful. Yes, now, but not then, almost in the way that an angelic-faced, surpassingly attractive woman is.

My uncle continues to hold my hand all the way to our seats. We are guided there by a spiffily uniformed usher to whom my uncle handed our tickets once we'd gotten off the ramps and emerged into the appropriate section of the seats running along the first base foul line. On the way to the ballpark, a short walk from the building in which my mom, dad, and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment, Sol had told me that the Dodgers, with whom I was soon to fall in love had a new player this season. (I had started getting a little interested in baseball at the tail end of the preceding, '46 season, when I began hearing about Pete Reiser, the great Dodger center fielder, crashing into walls and when my folks, who weren't normally intense about, or even much interested in, baseball would talk about the Dodgers race with the St. Louis Cardinals, in which the Cards ultimately, bested "our" Brooks, in a postseason playoff.) This rookie, as Sol referred to him (who, in fact, went on to win the first ever Rookie of the Year Award, of The Sporting News, at the conclusion of the '47 season, in which he would lead the Dodgers to the National League pennant in another very close fight with the Redbirds) was, as he was then called, the Negro, Jackie Robinson--or, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, as his mom, who soon became a single mother, had named him in honor of TR, Theodore Roosevelt, the early-twentieth-century president and standard bearer of that Republican Party which had, not much more than fifty years prior to Robinson's birth, been led by the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had, as history works, emancipated Jackie Robinson too, since his grandfather had been a slave. It also so happened that I, too, had a connection with TR because my dad, when still a rather recent immigrant from Russia to these shores, had written a "campaign song" for Roosevelt during his successful 1904 run for the presidency. Roosevelt (who had become president upon William McKinley's assassination in 1901) responded to my dad's well-meaning but naive effort with a hand-written letter of thanks signed with a flourish on presidential stationery. It was one of my dad's most cherished possessions throughout his long life. A few years later I won the Theodore Roosevelt essay competition in my junior high school and had tea at the Theodore Roosevelt House, along with other winners throughout the city, with some of the women who ran that landmark and who had memories of girlhood and young womanhood in the presence of the Roughrider himself.

However, I don't think that my uncle had explicitly mentioned to me that Robinson, whom I'd already heard about, had on April 15 at Ebbets broken the "color line," which in the twentieth century had kept non-Caucasian players from being part of "the national pastime." (I did have an older cousin by marriage, a well-known physician in the borough and a "progressive" and "socially conscious" individual, who had proudly told me some months before, I now realize, that "our" Dodgers had signed a Negro, someone who was "faster than the time it took to say 'Jack Robinson'" and that he would, just possibly, soon be playing for the "Flock," as New York City's seven daily newspapers then called Brooklyn's heroes.)

NUMBER 42

But once we were in our seats Sol told me that our man wore number 42 and to watch him especially if, once the game had started, he got to first base. He assured me that the lead he would take, while the pitcher was in motion delivering his next pitch, would be almost twice as long as a lead taken by just about any other base runner. Soon after the game started Robinson did get to first--I certainly forget now whether on a hit, walk, error, fielder's choice, whatever--and did start to take that gigantic, utterly daring, stupendously enormous lead. And it seemed to increase, stuttering half step by stuttering half step, each and every time the pitcher got ready to throw to the hitter.

At this point I remember very little else about the game or anyone else in it (I think the long-gone Boston Braves were the opponents, and I think the Dodgers did win, Joe Hatten pitching for them), but I've never lost, and trust I never will, from my mind's eye that moving picture of the twenty-eight-year-old rookie being audacious and brilliant, bedeviling a pitcher who'd never had to contend with anything like that before, on behalf of an entire race (I didn't realize that then, either, naturally) and toward moving the United States into a twentieth century's second half, which would be one of more respectful, equitable, decent relations between its black citizens and its white ones. Jack Roosevelt Robinson not only moved the country in that direction but also in many ways successfully achieved his momentous project as he became one of the greatest Major League players of all time and, more importantly, a great American--and also the hero of towering proportion whose much-too-early death, at fifty-three in 1972, in no way diminished the deity status he'd evolved to for a certain boy in Brooklyn, and for so many others as well.

That was the first time I saw Jackie Robinson "live," and I continued to see him live at Ebbets Field. Another of my mother's brothers, Uncle Moey, took me to see another game not too long after that initial exposure, and we sat in the center-field bleachers this time. The fans there seemed even more enthusiastic than they had in the first base grandstand seats, where I'd sat for my first game. I again remember virtually nothing about the game (I think the Chicago Cubs were the opponents this time), but I do vividly remember an incident that transpired near us. Robinson was on first and Reiser, who Leo Durocher had said was the fastest player he'd ever seen, was at bat. Manger Burt Shotton, filling in for Durocher, who'd been suspended from baseball for a year by Commissioner A. B. "Happy" Chandler (who, it turned out, was also a staunch defender of Robinson's right to play in the National League against threatened boycotts by teams like those Dodger-harassing Redbirds) gave Reiser the bunt sign. Pistol Pete laid down a beauty, as Robinson raced to second and beat it out for a single. Two fans, one black, the other white, started screaming at each other. The dispute, it seemed, was over which man was the fastest, the speeding ebony bullet, Robinson, on his way to second, or the phosphorescent flash, Reiser, hurtling down to first in 2.9 seconds or less. The antagonists seemed almost to come to blows before being calmed and separated. Robinson's proponent was the white man; Reiser's advocate, a black one. Number 42 accomplished this, too.

But my youthful experiences with Robinson were not on the field alone--as my later ones would also be "extra"-curricular. When I was about nine, and Robinson was likely in his third Major League season, in 1949 (when he won the National League MVP award with a .342 average, 124 RBIs, and a league-leading, by far, 37 stolen bases), he actually came to where my mom worked. She was the secretary to the chief administrator of Brooklyn Women's Hospital, in the so-called Brownsville section of the borough. Her boss had somehow recruited Robinson to come and speak at a fund-raising event for the hospital. I still don't know how, exactly, my mother arranged it, but I got "invited." (Number 42 continued, throughout his career, and life, to be extravagantly generous with his time and energy for worthy community endeavors. His sometime roommate on the Dodgers, the fine reliever Joe Black, number 49, 15-4 and Rookie of the Year, himself, in the Dodgers' pennant-winning '52 season, said Robinson would wake him in the morning to make Black accompany him when he would give talks to the students at grade schools. Black commented, "If the schools didn't call him to speak he would call them and say he wanted to.") And speak the magnificent second baseman did. He told how on his way in to the ballpark every day or night when the Dodgers were home, he would drive by the hospital and think of the wonderful work that went on in there, the good, dedicated, and decent people who toiled there and of those who were helped there. (Many, many years later, in 2002, when speaking about Robinson to a sociology class at George Washington University, I met a fellow speaker whose mom had been a nurse in the hospital at exactly the same time.) When he stepped off the podium, Robinson came almost right upon my awed self standing there as he passed by in conversation with the administrator on his way out. I still remember how massive he looked in his civvies, seemingly even more formidable than he appeared in the somewhat baggy Brooklyn blue-and-white home uniform. His shoulders, to this little boy's huge eyes, seemed endless in their expanse, and while he was tall (six feet one inch officially, I think), the chief effect was of width, thickness, and solidity. Another snapshot forever--Jackie, in his sparkling blue serge suit, BIGGER than life.

BIG

He also seemed so big when he emerged from the bowels of Ebbets Field after a game, when we kids would be lying in wait to get his autograph. (You would hand a player a self-addressed, stamped postcard, and if you were lucky he would sign, or, perhaps, the clubhouse man--I believe it was John Griffin at the time--would sign for him, and the card would be dropped in a mail-box. But we didn't worry about questions of "authenticity" then.) One day, after waiting quite a while for him, a tremendous throng of kids surrounded him when he came out and, grabbing postcards as he went, he gently but determinedly, methodically, pushed his way through the crush. My friend who was on the smallish, spare side, pre-bar mitzvah, suddenly emitted an "ouch!" and we thought he'd gotten a little roughed up by some hand or arm wantonly thrusting a postcard forward. But, actually, Robinson had accidentally stepped on his foot, in his inexorable path toward his car. My pal "nursed the wound" for weeks. His postcard also came back signed "Jackie Robinson."

Time, as it always does, went on. Robinson retired, after the 1956 season in which he had his last great moment, in the sixth game of the World Series. He broke up a ten-inning scoreless pitcher's duel at Ebbets Field between Bob Turley of the Yankees and Clem Labine, the ace Dodger reliever who had nevertheless started, and finished, that game (just a day after Don Larsen had bageled the Dodgers with his famous perfect game) with a vicious liner to left, over the head of Enos "Country" Slaughter, who came in when he should have gone back and who had deliberately spiked the Achilles tendon of the rookie Negro first baseman in '47 to score Junior Gilliam, number 19, with the game's sole run. Poetic justice indeed! Robinson went into the business world, became a successful executive with Chock Full O' Nuts Coffee, started devoting much time to militating for civil rights (Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Without Jackie Robinson no Martin Luther King") and went to Birmingham, Alabama, when the church in the African-American neighborhood there was firebombed, resulting in the deaths of several young girls. I moved on too and forsook baseball when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the '57 season, when I was in my second year of college at Columbia (I had watched that sixth game of the '56 Series on a dormitory lounge television, with screaming multitudes). I was at Harvard Law School when Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1962, in his first year of eligibility, and I became an attorney with the United States Securities and Exchanges Commission's New York regional office not long after I graduated the next year. It was at the SEC that our personal paths crossed again.

In 1966 the Enforcement Division of that office was conducting an investigation of a certain individual who appeared to have sold or manipulated a certain company's securities without complying with the requirements of the Securities Act of 1933. I was assigned to pursue some of the "leads" respecting this investigation. They consisted of indications of individuals who had, apparently, bought some of the suspicious stock from the "manipulator" in question. An SEC investigator and I would interview such investors to see what we could learn regarding what the "target" of the investigation had done, just how he had proceeded in accomplishing his suspected illicit "scheme." Lo and behold one of the individuals who seemingly had been fleeced by our man was one Jack Roosevelt Robinson. (In his biography of Robinson, Arnold Rampersad refers to Jackie's inclination to "trust people he happened to like.") Nothing to do but call Jackie Robinson--all in the line of duty. At that time he was working for Governor Nelson Rockefeller's reelection in New York. I don't think my hand and voice trembled too much as I dialed the appropriate number and asked the receptionist who answered to speak with "Jackie Robinson, please." She rang; he picked up, identifying himself. I told him why we needed to talk with him, and he asked if we could wait until the gubernatorial campaign was over in a few weeks. Of course, I said, and heaved a sigh of relieved modest accomplishment as I recradled my office phone. But no sooner had I done that than it rang. It was, again, HIM. Why didn't we just get this over with--when could we come up to his office and ask him what we needed to ask him? An appointment was made and, on the day and time specified, Elliott Abramson, trial attorney, and Carmine Asselta, investigator, both of the New York regional office of the United States Securities and Exchanges Commission, showed up at Governor Rockefeller's Manhattan campaign offices.

ENCOUNTER

While going up in the elevator I thought about the trauma of encountering one's overwhelming hero. In Eric Wolfe Greenberg's novel The Celebrant, the protagonist suddenly finds himself on the same train with his idol, New York Giant great (and later, original Hall of Fame inductee) Christy Mathewson: "I watched him ... and sensed an immense distance from him. He was everything I was not. I couldn't approach him; what might I say? I could gush in praise; it would be forgotten in an hour.... There was a gulf between us.... I had nothing to offer him."

We told the receptionist just whom it was we were there to see, she buzzed him, and presently, down the long corridor, comes the familiar, pigeon-toed figure. (But he doesn't look quite as big as he'd seemed about seventeen years before.) Before he is within earshot Carmine turns to me and whispers: "Holy shit, Elliott, it's number 42!" He keeps coming toward us; we get up and introduce ourselves. He doesn't need to introduce himself. There are handshakes all around, and he conducts us to his office. It's appointed in sort of an alright way, nothing that arresting, not that I'm really attentive or knowledgeable regarding such matters. I do, however, remember the thought flashing by--why doesn't he have a bigger, more impressive office? He asks us about coffee; we decline. But he says he'll continue with his, which he's sipping from a Styrofoam cup. As he settles heavily back into his desk chair, one of those that whirl around on ball bearings, while we're sitting on the edges of ours, facing him, he puts a sugar cube in the coffee. As he does so he comments: "I shouldn't do this; I have diabetes." We nod sympathetically, more or less. (Branch Rickey's comment comes to mind: "I only wish that I could have signed him a few years earlier; the man is adventure, all adventure.")

He opens business with "What can I do for you?" We ask our questions about his "dealings" with the target of our investigation. He answers directly and fully, but he seems a bit upset--as if he were discovering that someone he thought was his friend had betrayed him. It doesn't take all that long and, before very many minutes, we are on our feet thanking him for his cooperation and holding out our hands for the farewell handshake. I am still overawed by what's just happened, by having been in his presence. But what does one say? How do you "recognize" him for all he meant to a preadolescent growing up in need of heroes? For all he meant to so many? We shake hands and that's it. Carmine, from a poor Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, who has not been to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, as I have, grips that huge ebony palm and says, "Mr. Robinson, you gave us all a lot of thrills." Robinson looks right at him, his eyes become alert, and he nods. Almost imperceptibly, but he nods. He doesn't say any more. It is the perfect ending; anything more would have been contaminated by the banality of excess.

But it's not the ending. Carmine and I keep on working on the case. There are other "witnesses" to interview. A day or two later I'm sitting in my office at 225 Broadway, pondering all this, looking for the illegal pattern of conduct, and the phone rings. "Mr. Abramson," I say. "Jackie Robinson," he says. He's been thinking about our conversation the other day and feels that perhaps he should consult an attorney about what remedies he might have against the man we questioned him about, the one who sold him the stock we mentioned. He wonders whether I could recommend an attorney for him to see. I'm not too rattled by being in his "presence" again, so to speak, but I'm straining to be sympathetic at the same time that I'm frustrated because I can't come through for him as he had so many times, for us. I honey coat my answer in all sorts of apologies but tell him that as an employee of the SEC I really can't recommend a specific attorney to him. I also tell him, however, to indeed consult some attorney if he feels that his legal rights have been violated. I try to be as supportive as possible without violating my public trust or disclosing confidential information, but I'm really exasperated by the constraints chafing me. He stays as even voiced as when he started and thanks me. He indicates no sense of disappointment or dispiritedness. That's all; the conversation couldn't have lasted more than a minute or two.

Robinson's teammate, Gil Hodges, number 14, Brooklyn's first baseman, who knocked in both runs in the Dodgers' seventh-game triumph over the Yankees in 1955 to finally win their first World Series (Vin Scully, still the announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, intoned at game's end only, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world," explaining later that had he said more he would have broken down with emotion), dies a few years later. It's Jackie whom all eyes are on at the funeral. In a documentary program Howard Cosell, the sportscaster, tells about the enormous adulation Robinson receives from the crowd. Cosell himself says: "Jackie Robinson was the greatest athlete I ever saw; also, the greatest man." Robinson's first son, Jack Jr., dies in a tragic automobile accident a year or two after that, and Robinson himself falls prey to diabetes-induced heart disease in 1972, shortly after throwing out the first ball at one of the World Series games that year, after stating that he'd like to look down the line one day and see a black manager standing in the third base coach's box. I'm "too busy" practicing law in Manhattan to go to number 42's funeral. Many others are not. He is buried in Brooklyn.

"MYTHLIKE"

Over the years I think about him a great deal, more and more, actually. His legendary achievements seem to loom larger and larger. My friends and I continually review the great Dodger moments and, in particular, his forever luminous exploits. One pal finally gets it just right: "He was mythlike." I see number 42's former teammate Ralph Branca, off whom Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world" to beat the Robinson-led Dodgers in the '51 National League playoff, after the Brooks had blown a thirteen-and-a-half-game regular season lead, on the Today Show one morning. He talks about Robinson and, finally, says that he is on his way out to the cemetery to visit his second baseman's grave because "Jackie was my friend; he still is my friend."

Suddenly it's 1987, the fortieth anniversary of his rookie season, and the New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey writes a piece entitled "Jackie Robinson, Hero." In it he tells, among other things, of having once spoken to Robinson as a kid, in the rotunda of Ebbets Field, and of having interviewed him, quite a bit later, when Vecsey was doing an article and Robinson challenged him, a bit testily, on how many African-Americans there were in high administrative or managerial positions in baseball. Vecsey concludes the piece as follows:
I never had the chance to speak with Jackie Robinson again. When their
son died in an automobile accident in 1971, I wrote a note that said
they had thousands of sons and daughters, now adults of a certain age,
who remember the bravery and the searing truths as much as we remember
the flashing spikes and the headlong dive to save a game. When he died,
in 1972, I was out of sports at the time, so I never got the chance to
put into print that Jackie Robinson was the greatest sports hero I ever
had, that we spoke two times, once in tranquility and once in tension,
and that I treasure both times equally.


I remember that I, too, was physically up close to him twice--once in sunshine and once in lengthening shadow.

I write Vecsey, enclosing one of my own op-ed pieces, which I'd gotten published from time to time, about the great man and told him that his final paragraph had made me cry. "'It give me tears,' as a friend of mine had put it," I said. He responded and was gracious enough to claim that my piece had done the same to him. We number 42 worshippers are a close-knit, but not inconsiderably sized, group.

FIFTY YEARS LATER

The year 1997 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson's breaking in, and a good deal is made of it. Major League Baseball honors the memory in various ways, and even President Clinton participates in the principal ceremony at Shea Stadium, in Queens, as close to Brooklyn as a Major League ballpark then is. There is even an academic conference, at Long Island University's downtown Brooklyn campus, entitled "Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream." Robinson's widow, Rachel, whom he frequently credited with going through it all with him every step of the way, is there, as is Charles Schumer, now a United States Senator from New York but who is still thinking of running then, as well as the still multitudes of true admirers who cherish his memory endlessly. Many heartfelt words are spoken about him, and the conference organizer, LIU professor of history Joseph Dorinson, publishes a book, of the same title as the conference, compiling a good deal of the speeches and presentations given there. I don't want to be "nervous" about giving a talk of my own and just want to enjoy the conference, so I don't even try to get on the program. But Dorinson is kind enough to mention me in the book, in a footnote anyway.

Richard Zamoff, a professor of sociology, starts a course at George Washington University with the same title as the book and is kind enough to invite me every year to guest lecture regarding my impressions of and knowledge about Robinson. He has done a grand thing in establishing this perennial class by which to pass on the great heritage of Robinson as an American hero to a new generation of educated men and women. I am struck by two things, at least, about these classes, where those of us who were so unforgettably touched by number 42 try to make others understand just how great his impact was: (1) the classes are largely made up of Caucasian, rather than African-American, students (hopefully the latter already "know" about Jackie), and (2) there are always a few students who come up after the class concludes and genuinely and solemnly thank the presenters for what they've "taught." Sometimes some of Robinson's former teammates, like the eloquent and elegant Carl Erskine, number 17, a pitcher who threw two no-hitters in his career, the second saved by a great play by Robinson in the ninth inning, come to sessions of the class to share their memories with the students. The class, as it has gone on, has picked up enrollment and sponsors who support the travel of the speakers and other expenses, and it is now solidly entrenched in the curriculum.

Also in that golden anniversary year, 1997, Arnold Rampersad--African-American and, at that time, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University and a member of both the Department of English and the Program in African-American Studies, as well as a biographer of the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and of tennis great, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, Arthur Ashe--publishes Jackie Robinson: A Biography. Rampersad appears, with Rachel Robinson at the Miami International Book Fair in November of that year, and my wife and I introduce ourselves as we get our autographed copies of the biography and of Rachel's book, a photographic essay entitled Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. Shelley says to Rachel, "You get two for the price of one," because she, too, grew up in Brooklyn during the incandescent Robinson years. I also give Rampersad some of those op-ed articles I wrote about his subject and also some letters that I wrote in defense of Rampersad's biography and his subject (who was criticized by some reviewer of the books as "principally a ballplayer"). After a while there comes a warm, too kind note from Rampersad, who writes:
The material [the New York Times Book Review] you left with me cheered
me up enormously. I shared it with Rachel and she, too, was happy....
The way you expressed yourself [is] certainly gratifying to me--and to
Mrs. Robinson. The book has not sold well but I continue to be proud of
it (in a modest way!) and glad I agreed to do it.


In his book Rampersad describes how, in 1970, Robinson connected with a "young lawyer, who quickly became a close advisor and friend." Martin Edelman had joined the firm that was representing the Robinson-founded Freedom National Bank and had met Robinson at a business meeting. After the meeting, which ended about 6:30 in the evening, Edelman was standing downstairs, in the cold and dark, trying to decide whether to hail a cab or walk to the subway when, in Edelman's words quoted by Rampersad:
this enormous hand touched my shoulder from behind, and Jack said, "I
bet you would like a ride." We talked all the way downtown. Because of
bank business we saw a fair amount of one another and after meetings he
would drive me home.... I wasn't looking for a mentor; but I suppose I
found one. We sort of "clicked."


Rampersad writes further: "Respecting Robinson, Edelman began to make a habit of calling him almost every weeknight around ten o'clock to go over the business of the day. He found Robinson not only grateful but also a spirited partner in their exchanges." As Edelman told Rampersad: "He brought to his business, day in and day out, an incredible sense of determination, a sense of morality, and a value system that people he did business with felt was very special." Edelman was not the first to notice this incredible sense of determination.

When I read these passages in Rampersad's biography I can't help thinking of number 42's phone call, just a few years before he met Edelman, to the twenty-seven-year-old neophyte lawyer, me. Had I been free to talk with him about legal representation? Could it have been? I also read in 1989 a novel for juveniles by Barbara Cohen, who also grew up in Brooklyn, entitled Thank You Jackie Robinson. It's very last sentences are as follows:
I only knew that Jackie Robinson had saved me once again. In my mind's
eye I could see him tearing around the base paths with more speed than
any other man in baseball. I could see him cutting first base sharply
and heading for second, and in my mind, where nothing ever dies, I can
see him still, to this very day, running from base to base, in the top
of the seventh inning, between the second and third out, in a brand new
baseball game that will never, ever be over.


As the title of Stephen Spender's immortal poem has it: "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great." Unfinished, yet.
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Author:Abramson, Elliott M.
Publication:Nine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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