Some names overshadow only a slice of our lives, but Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson penetrated our collective psyche first in 1947, and every spring as baseball remembers him on the anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in baseball. And now comes an outstanding film treatment of his life.
As a child in 1950s New Jersey, I heard the feats and statistics of Robinson praised and shouted about at family picnics. I had an uncle who said that Jackie “helped us believe that many things we could not imagine were now possible.” They knew about the racial taunts, the death threats and the hostility of even his own teammates; overcoming all that added to his achievements on the field and made them burst with pride. Their cheers were my indoctrination.
Meeting people over the years, I learned the manner of the man. His older brother Mack Robinson, who won a Silver Medal in the 1936 Olympics, 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens, told me about that special upbringing and competition unique to Southern California. Hank Aaron, a modern baseball hero who listened to the crack of Jackie’s bat on his radio, spoke of the doors Jackie opened.
When Jackie was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had to prove that he was not only a good baseball player but a sterling human and citizen. He was well-prepared, coming out of a conservative environment in Pasadena, Calif. His family is another chapter in the Great Migration, moving from Georgia to the West Coast. In Southern California race mattered but without the overt violence of the South, and with the opportunity for an integrated education, Jackie had the middle class foundation that would appeal to the scouts from the white baseball leagues. Above all, he was an outstanding athlete, playing four sports at the University of California, Los Angeles. He further developed his outlook on life among white contemporaries in the U.S. Army and the black baseball players with the Kansas City Monarchs.
When the 28-year-old stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on April 15, 1947, Jackie had an unshakeable philosophy, saying “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” Baseball had been segregated for more than 50 years. He was chosen by Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers, because he was mature and educated but also because he was a very settled married man who spoke well and without a regional accent. Jackie was ready to almost single handedly call into question the conditions and pointlessness of a segregated America, as well as the notion of black inferiority.
Before Jackie, many people – many of them unknown – had worked hard to over turn America’s inequality but Jackie brought a fundamental change in baseball and accelerated a change in American apartheid that couldn’t be ignored.
I was immensely pleased, as a historian, as a baseball fan, as a Jackie admirer, that so many of these traits are captured in “42,” the dramatic film of Jackie’s rookie season. It shows how one man could shoulder the burden of being the first and gracefully win even some of the skeptics of his talent and manhood. It shows an ugly America in 1947, before the Armed Services were officially integrated, before the media-covered protests in the South. The day to day pain was unbelievable, with thousands of fans jeering, as well as cheering. He stood up, he hit, he stole all the bases. And he didn’t do it alone. The film also presents a rare portrayal of black love, with Rachel Robinson’s strength beautifully displayed.
The role of racism in Jackie’s first season is a powerful character in the movie. The best films take a big idea or issue and reduce them to a human scale so that the viewer is not dazzled but engaged and cares. One scene haunts me. I had seen other depictions of the encounter with Ben Chapman, the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, but the way the encounter is shot you saw how close and intimate the two were so that the racial epithets had real power. It reminded me just how much the n-word hurt me growing up in New Jersey.
The film does not go beyond that maiden season, but the National Museum of African American History and Culture will present Jackie Robinson not only as the pioneering sportsman but as a civil rights fighter who was praised and criticized. We have a letter Robinson wrote President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, objecting to the stated position that black people should be patient. “I respectfully suggest that you unwittingly crush the spirit of freedom in Negroes by constantly urging forbearance and give hope to those pro-segregation leaders like Governor Faubus who would take from us even those freedoms we now enjoy.”
Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture