It’s time for another of my columns usually called “Going to the Movies.” The film I’ve chosen this time is “42: The Jackie Robinson Story.” Watching it is timely because the MBG season got underway last week and next Saturday, April 15, will be the annual Jackie Robinson Day.
The event will mark the 70th anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. There is no number 42 on jerseys today, because all major league teams removed it from their jerseys several years ago to honor Jackie.
And this is Holy Week, although the connection might not seem obvious at first. But “42” is a story that could have been told like a parable in Galilee or Brooklyn, with Robinson silently enduring verbal, physical, and moral abuse, from the spectators in the stands to his own teammates before he was accepted by most people as a hero. When events in this film take place, segregation and prejudice were still flagrant in many parts of this country, as they still are, even after the Civil Rights Movement.
In this film released in 2013, the leading character, Jackie Robinson, is played ably by a newcomer, Chadwick Boseman. Another film with Robinson himself and Ruby Dee was made in 1950, and others also exist.
In the 2013 version, Harrison Ford (one of my favorites) plays the role of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ famed general manager and vice president. Ford is transformed convincingly into a beefy old guy in his mid-sixties, with heavy jowls and cigar in hand, growling his lines from the side of a mouth that no one dares argue with.
First, it’s worth knowing some biographical background which, to keep the movie rolling along, is glossed over in the film. The real Branch Rickey attended a Methodist college, where he played baseball and coached as he did later at the University of Michigan while earning a law degree. While developing his professional career on the executive side of baseball, he was also a social activist, so it is not surprising that it was his idea to bring talented minority players into professional baseball. For information about this larger-than-life baseball figure, I recommend the biography by Murray Polner.
Jackie Robinson himself warrants more background, too, of course. He was a commissioned officer during WW II, but his temper, his “mouth,” and his guts resulted in his being court marshaled after he was ordered to move to the back of an Army bus at Fort Hood and refused the order. He had played baseball at UCLA, which was an integrated school, and was touring the country with Negro Leagues, catching the attention of Rickey. Rickey hired Robinson to play for the Montreal Royals and, from there, for the Dodgers, with his temper and mouth accompanying him to Brooklyn.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film “42” takes place when Rickey is challenging Robinson to overcome his temper and his resentments if he is going to survive the insults he will experience, while Robinson in turn insists he has the guts to do it. But Rickey continues to goad Robinson unmercifully, baiting him, it would appear, with every possible ugly insult, even calling him a Black s.o.b.
And then Rickey says quietly, “Like our Savior, you gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
And the film’s stunned viewers are left to think about what it really means to turn the other cheek. Does it mean to become a humiliated wimp or does it mean to silently hold a grudge that will explode with rage sooner or later? Or is it something much larger and with greater value at stake?
How did Robinson learn to get back on his feet without screaming angrily when a pitcher has just deliberately aimed a ball directly at his head and knocked him to the ground, possibly causing serious injury, or a runner has spiked his leg? How did he have the guts to take all the insults hurled at him and by example become the great person he proved to be? The film’s viewer will see how it happened.
Turning the other cheek is a lesson to think about during Holy Week.