One of the marks of a good movie is the conversation it provokes after seeing it. “42,” the recently released biopic about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Organized Baseball’s color line, qualifies as remarkable.
Set in the post-World War II years of 1946-1947, the film shows the day-by-day racism Robinson endured as he fought to take his place in the national pastime.
The filmmakers limited the story to that of the heroics of two men, Robinson and the man who signed him, Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Together they stood up to the baseball establishment – the owners, the white press, and fans, as well as some of Robinson’s own teammates and opponents. As Rickey cheerfully says of “baseball’s great experiment,” “[Robinson’s] a Methodist, I’m a Methodist. And God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”
It’s a great line for a movie, though God might have something to say about Rickey’s premise.
Besides, the full back-story of how organized baseball came to be integrated offers good reason to continue the conversation where the film leaves off.
The film does allude to this through the role of black sportswriter Wendell Smith, who educates Robinson about what he faces at spring training in the South. (Robinson had grown up in Pasadena and attended UCLA, a far less segregated area of the country).
Smith also points out that Robinson isn’t alone in this battle, asking why he thinks Smith sits in the stands behind third base, typewriter on his knees, at the games. The answer being that in 1947 major-league press boxes were closed to black sportswriters.
(How fitting this film is playing at the Lido Theatre, which opened in 1938, as the calls to integrate Organized Baseball were gathering steam.)
Writing for the Pittsburgh Courier, Smith had been calling for an end to baseball’s color line for years, as had many others in the black press. Unions, such as the CIO, lobbied for it. Civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, called for it. A few northern white politicians, Republican and Democrat, called for it. Few white sportswriters, however, spoke up.
One who did was a young freelance writer from Brooklyn named Lester Rodney. (Rodney had criticized the American Communist Party’s newspaper, the New York Daily Worker, for its ineffective coverage of the nation’s sports, whereupon the paper hired him as sports editor in 1936.)
If reading about Communists who end up on the right side of history makes you choke on your morning coffee, let’s remember that the will for social justice – and the integration of baseball was very much part of the larger issue of civil rights — often comes from the political Left, the very far Left.
That’s another part of the power of the full Jackie Robinson story. It took all kinds of Americans to integrate baseball, from crusty, conservative Republicans like Branch Rickey to feisty Communists like Lester Rodney. It’s a lesson we should revisit in our own politically fractured era.
So I hope that conversation about Jackie Robinson and the film “42” continues.
Care for a summertime reading list? Check out Chris Lamb’s “Conspiracy of Silence,” Lee Lowenfish’s “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman,” Irwin Silber’s biography of Lester Rodney, “Press Box Red,” and Jules Tygiel’s “Baseball’s Great Experiment,”
Jean Hastings Ardell can be reached at [email protected].