I wasn’t born when Jackie Robinson first stepped onto a major league baseball field on this day sixty-six years ago, breaking the color barrier. Growing up, for the most part, in Southern California, I was already accustomed to integration. It was a given.
From the first moment I saw Chavez Ravine in 1962, I discovered a world where sunshine and blue skies made dreams happen and my heroes became the men in Blue and White – The Los Angeles Dodgers. I cheered just as eagerly for Charlie Neal, Johnny Roseboro, Willie Davis, Jim Gilliam, and Maury Wills – all black – as I did for Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. While individual performance was dazzling to watch, baseball is a team effort – the perfect metaphor for America, itself. We rise or fall by working together.
By this time, Jackie Robinson had retired from the Dodgers and baseball (1956). But I well-remember that 1962 was the year Robinson was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. With a lifetime.311 batting average over ten seasons, Robinson played in six World Series and was selected for six consecutive All-Star games.
The new film, 42, records that April day in 1947 and much more. While the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of first black player in a previously all-white world, it also pays tribute to Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who defied much of the baseball establishment, as well as his own team, to bring the first black man to baseball.
“Your enemy will be out in force,” Rickey cautions Robinson. “But you cannot meet him on his own low ground.”
“You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Robinson asks.
“No,” Rickey tells him. “I want a player who’s got the guts notto fight back.”
42 is not a perfect film, but it is an important one. While it gives us a glimpse of the bigotry of the day, each incident becomes a set-up for another piece of baseball excellence by Robinson, and there was so much more to Robinson’s story. He was the first black vice-president of major American corporation, Chock Full O’Nuts, and helped establish the African-American owned Freedom National Bank.
However, the film tells an important story of integrity. Robinson kept his word to Rickey and refused to be pulled into racial fights, instead focusing his passion on the ball field.
In my book What Do You Stand For?, Ken Burns eloquently observed, “I think that we, in the media culture, confuse heroism. We have reduced the notion that anybody who is well known, a celebrity, is therefore some sort of hero. In the area of sports, anybody who plays their game well is also a hero. And I would like to vehemently disagree.
“I think that heroes are very interesting combinations of both strengths and weaknesses. A hero is not someone who is perfect. Indeed, what the Greeks have told us for thousands of years, that the nature of a hero is the very obvious strengths and weaknesses of the people and the negotiations that go on between them which renders our contemporary scene with far more heroes than our media would like us to believe.
“Jackie Robinson is a particularly great hero because he transcended the skill that it takes to be a Major League ballplayer and entered the realm of almost Biblical proportions when he exhibited the necessary forbearance to withstand the withering racism that took place as the first African-American to join Major League Baseball.
“We had called it ‘our national pastime.’ But, how could it be a national pastime when many of the best players – as it turns out, some of the greatest players ever – were, for decades under a gentleman’s agreement, excluded from playing this game and were forced to develop separate but athletically equal leagues. But it all goes back to the ability of the experiment of Robinson to be a success. That it was based on the nature of his character, his principles, his willingness to turn the other cheek, to exhibit that kind of Biblical forbearance, that turns it into one of the great dramas – not just in American history, not just in sports history, but in all of human history.”
In every ballpark around the country, April 15th is celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day – a day on which every player on everyteam wears # 42.