COMMENTARY | It was a brave and dangerous thing to do.
Bringing the first Negro ballplayer up to the major leagues in post-WWII New York was risky. In 1947, the Big Apple was not the international city it is today. The men had just come home from fighting and killing Nazis, and many of them were still walking around in uniform. Most didn't have full-time jobs, grief counselors or air-conditioned apartments to come home to.
New York City was a loose conglomeration of different ethnic and religious populations, clustered mostly by color and national origin and rough neighborhoods where people respected each other's unwritten rules -- and it stayed peaceful that way. Italians in the i-talian neighborhoods, the Jews in Flatbush, the Irish in Hell's Kitchen, and the blacks in Harlem or clustered in segregated urban areas within Brooklyn, Queens or over there in Jersey.
Now, Universal Pictures has released a well-done and well-liked bio-pic called "42" about the year 1947, when general manager Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in order to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
But I have a beef with it.
The legend of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers is one that will endure for a very long time to come, and not just because it is about race relations. It is also a bittersweet story about love, patience, endurance and courage. His story will endure because it is about an athlete -- a very brave young man -- who transcended the sports world to become an American hero. That sounds like a history lesson, and it is. Stealing bases in the heat of a summer pennant race is a dirty business. Doing it against a backdrop of hostile bigots that threaten to kill you, racists who shout epithets and throw things at you from the stands, and players who try to spike or bean you with a fastball on the field was frightening. Taking the job of a white major-league ballplayer was scary business then in places like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Robinson and Rickey both had the FBI investigating numerous death threats and bomb threats throughout that year, and beyond.
There was tremendous pressure on Jackie not to respond to the things he was called on the field, or the ways he was abused out of uniform at the hotels, restaurants and restrooms they visited on the circuit. Robinson, not a shy fellow to begin with, was told by Branch Rickey that if he ever reacted to the bigots or did anything in his own defense, that that would be the only headline in the morning papers -- and their deal could soon unravel.
There was also tremendous pressure for him to perform. Robinson couldn't just be a good player. He had to be a great player. If he failed, he could have set back the clock on integration for years. He had to excel to prove he belonged in the white man's world, and in the starting lineup.
He did that, and more, in his rookie season and every year thereafter. And by doing exceptionally well he opened the door to others: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Don Newcombe, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and on and on to present day.
Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights Leader
Robinson didn't just break the color barrier in baseball; he broke it wide open everywhere in America. Black and white fans all cheered together for the exciting style of baseball he brought to the game. His big smile, those lightning fast legs, his ability at the plate and agility with a glove were unsurpassed. So much so that even his arch enemies had to shrug and surrender to his superior skills, stamina and dedication on and off the field.
You've got to love "42", if for no other reason than Mrs. Rachel Robinson likes it, approved of it and supports it with her personal appearances. It's a fine movie, but, for me, it's a Hollywood version that keeps its hands too clean.
For the real Robinson and his Dodger teammates, it wasn't that pretty. It was dirty, sweaty, hot, sticky, ugly and mean. I thought we all ought to see that on the big screen, even the young kids that are coming to see this movie in numbers. To be fair, the film does tackle racial prejudice head on, but in a way that feels like a whitewashed history book, and not the rough and dirty fight it was for Jackie that first year with the Dodgers. Robinson took a lot of abuse verbally -- and physically. The film sprays us with the "N-word" more times than we'd like to hear it, but I could not help thinking how much worse it sounded in the real ballparks and hotels that Robinson stayed in during his baseball years.
The movie shows Robinson getting beaned in the head by a knock-down pitch from an angry white pitcher. Jackie, played by Chadwick Boseman, gets up and soldiers on with a gash on his forehead from where the ball hit him, but it's just a gash. Players wore no batting helmets in 1947. The only thing protecting them from a 90-mph fastball to the head was a felt cap. That was a life and death struggle, but it looks here more like a schoolyard brawl.
On other occasions in "42", we see Robinson's frustration and a pushing match here or there. One Dodgers teammate gets traded to Pittsburgh because he refuses to accept Robinson in the clubhouse, but other than that it's just too pretty. That bean-ball could easily have killed him, so I keep thinking how "42" should have been blocked off and directed by Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino for us to get the feeling of what it was really like for Jackie, the only Negro on the field.
Race relations in 1947 were raw and often vicious. People spat at him and hurled their beers at him from the stands. On the diamond, Robinson was thrown at, spiked and hit often in that first year. The vitriol of "42" rises to a bold level for Hollywood, but it's nowhere near the nasty, dirty, ugly, hateful abuse bigots and bullies showered on Jackie in real time. In public, Robinson was the perfect gentlemen throughout his career, although that did not keep him from speaking the truth privately. So he wasn't just a baseball hero, he was a patriot.
Jackie Robinson is now American history -- a national Civil Rights leader way before Martin Luther King -- and he was a very brave harbinger of radical change coming to America. The movie "42", on the other hand, gets only a B for its bravery.
Elliot Blinder, a freelance writer, has been following the Dodgers since they were in Brooklyn. He has personally witnessed Fernando Valenzuela's opening day shutout, Orel Hershiser's scoreless innings streak, and Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series.
Follow him on Twitter @ElliotsWindow.
- Sports & Recreation
- Jackie Robinson
- Brooklyn Dodgers
- Branch Rickey