For a group of D.C. high school students, baseball player Jackie Robinson had been a distant historical figure they knew little about.
But as they left a screening Friday of “42,” the new film about Robinson and his sometimes painful path to integrating baseball, they were inspired by lessons that apply to their lives today.
“People can say a lot of hateful things,” said Reneshia Gaskins, 17, an Anacostia High School junior. “But watching him and knowing what he went through was way worse than anything I’ve ever been through, so I know I can succeed, too.”
About 400 teenagers from 14 D.C. schools watched the film starring Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman as the Dodgers second base player who broke the color barrier in the major leagues. After the screening, the students took part in a panel discussion with Nationals center fielder Denard Span, first base coach Tony Tarasco and general manager Mike Rizzo.
Span, 29, credited Robinson for “opening up so many doors” for black athletes and said the film honestly portrays the racism of the era.
“Being a black baseball player, it showed me what Jackie Robinson had to go through so that I could be here today talking to you,” Span said. “It hits home to your soul and signifies how much this game and the world has changed since then.”
Braswell Chappelle, 16, a 10th-grader at Anacostia and a basketball player, said Robinson displayed admirable self-control when he was taunted with epithets.
“He didn’t let them get into his head,” Chappelle said. “He did what he had to do and played baseball.”
The film depicts Robinson’s efforts in the face of withering bigotry to win over his teammates while helping the ball club to win games. Along the way, he became one of the first prominent figures in the nascent civil rights movement.
He first took the field as a major league player on April 15, 1947, years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps and said, “I have a dream.”
“We owe a debt of gratitude to Jackie Robinson,” said Kendra Gaither of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, started in 1973 by his widow, Rachel Robinson. “Gratefully, we no longer have to experience” what Jackie Robinson did.
After Robinson joined the Dodgers, other black players soon followed in the major leagues. But in Washington, it officially took until September 1954, when Senators owner Clark Griffith signed Carlos Paula, a Cuban-born outfielder. Paula hit a single and a double in his debut to help Washington beat Philadelphia 8-1. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate in 1959.
The screenings of “42” are part of an effort by Major League Baseball to promote the game and its history, particularly with young black athletes. In his talk to the students, Rizzo said the number of black players in the league has dwindled in past decade. He estimated that about 9 percent of all professional players are black.
Span recalled that growing up, he was usually the only black player on his youth baseball teams .
“I’ve played in a lot of hostile environments,” Span said. “Still to this day there are ignorant people in the world. I ignore the haters and just have fun.”