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Essay

Why “42” Left Me Flat

By September 2, 2013 One Comment
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Thanks to Redbox, I finally saw 42, Brian Helgeland’s feel good story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s “color line.”  What’s not to like? With the help of a cute wife and a gruff owner, Jackie Robinson perseveres and overcomes, and I imagine if I were ten years old I would think it was the greatest movie ever made.

But I’m not ten. There is much, much more to the story than 42 captured:

  •       The argument can be made that breaking the color line killed Jackie Robinson.  He died at the relatively young age of 53, but he was an old 53, blind and grey and hobbled. 
  •       He spoke truth to power a few weeks before dying, appearing at the 1972 World Series and criticizing baseball for not employing African-Americans as managers.
  •       He was a Republican, which often put him at odds with the others in the Civil Rights movement.  He campaigned for Nixon in 1960, worked to get Nelson Rockefeller nominated in ‘64, and then made the statement, “Now I know what it must have felt like to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” after Barry Goldwater was nominated at the Republican convention later that year. 
  •       Wesley Branch Rickey (yes, he was named after that Wesley) was a devout Methodist.  He found a kindred religious spirit in Robinson, who had been a Methodist Sunday School teacher.  Of Robinson, Rickey said, “He was a Christian by inheritance and practice.”
  •       After compiling his list of attributes the man who would integrate baseball must have – not just superior baseball skills but things like education, character and intelligence – Rickey despaired of the project, saying, “There are just not many such humans.”
  •       During their monumental three-hour-long first meeting, Rickey had Robinson read a section of Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ on non-resistance, which Papini called active non-resistance, not passive.  Why didn’t the movie show that scenario?
  •       One of Rickey’s greatest fears was that “the Negro people themselves” were a threat to Robinson’s success.  Rickey reached out to Black churches in every city the Dodgers played in, asking the larger community to turn the other cheek along with Robinson.  Regardless of the implicit racism is Rickey’s thought, I am intrigued by his strategy of going to the churches to get his message across.
  •       Rickey offered no compensation to the Kansas City Monarchs when signing Robinson and the integration of major league baseball killed the Negro leagues, which had been a significant part of black culture.  No one ever seems to talk about that. 
  •       One of the major fears of baseball’s owners was that black fans would come to the games in droves and drive white fans away.  That didn’t happen.  Sixty-six years after Robinson, baseball teams are much more integrated than the grandstands.  My unscientific observation is there are a lot more African Americans working at the ballpark – not just as players but as vendors and ticket takers and ushers – than attending the games as fans.   Hence the much larger racial issue that 42 does not come close to addressing.  Good-hearted white people are mystified that good-hearted people of color still voluntarily segregate themselves after all the legal barriers have been removed.  Why don’t African-Americans or Latinos or Native Americans come in droves to major league stadiums, or private colleges, or white churches, or shopping malls, or country clubs, or para-church ministries, or even seminaries?  The cultural work that would need to be done to transform white institutions into hospitable places where people of any ethnicity would feel at home is rarely done and many institutional leaders are content to turn a blind eye to the issue. 

42 gives the distinct impression that racism in America is as long gone as fedoras, flannel uniforms and a big league team in Brooklyn.  Yes, racism in our world is rarely overt; today it is much more covert. The racism in 42 feels like nostalgia, which is a perverse misrepresentation of reality. Race remains an incredibly complex and divisive part of our culture.

The real change I’ve noticed in our society from the time of 42 isn’t in race relations but in the role of religion. Baseball’s God these days is the American god of prosperity, instead of social justice and transformation.  God blesses and blesses and demands nothing in return. God is a lucky talisman, and many players give God a shout out by pointing heavenward after a home run or key play. Every All-Star and World Series game features a seventh inning moment when “God Bless America” is sung, either by a policeman, a soldier or an American Idol finalist.  Those same games begin with fighter jet flyovers, military color guards and the display of a giant American flag so big it swallows the outfield, all brought to you by Budweiser.  Patriotism, religion, consumerism, military might and sentimentality mingle together into a mélange far removed from the racial and religious ideals Jackie Robinson fought for.  What do you think he’d say if he were alive today?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 

One Comment

  • Tom Huissen says:

    I think if the points you raise were to be dealt with in a movie, it would have to be a documentary and nearly 10 hours long. I'm trying to remember how Ken Burns dealt with Jackie and integration in "Baseball".

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