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The Ultimate Exemplar of the American Dream

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On April 15, every player in major league baseball wears the number 42 on his back. Filling movie theaters over this past weekend, millions of young people courageously chasing their dreams against long odds now understand why that show of unity has meaning.

Brian Helgeland, the director of 42, set out to give Jackie Robinson a truly "big" movie to tell his story and inspire generations to come with a vivid recounting of the courage he showed in breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947. Helgeland has done that and more - the New York screening of the movie I attended last week was buzzing, tears flowed freely and there's no doubt this will be one of the most-talked-about films of the year.

I'm glad that a whole new generation will be inspired by Robinson, who first inspired me more than 60 years ago when I was a boy heading to Ebbets Field with my father to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers face the New York Yankees in the World Series. I grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, where African Americans and Italians and Poles lived side by side and everyone got along. I didn't understand the politics of Jackie breaking the color barrier, but I understood courage in action. That I could see with my own eyes. It left a lifelong impression.

My grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, settled in Trenton and embraced baseball as a way to become American and fit in, even before he could speak our language. He ended up owning the Trenton Giants, the minor-league team Willie Mays joined in 1950, becoming the first African-American to play in the Interstate League.

What I love about the story is this detail, which parallels key scenes in Brian Helgeland's movie: The night Mays joined the club, the Giants were playing in Maryland. Because of segregation, Mays had to stay in a different hotel from the team. He was alone in his room late that night when he heard a commotion on the fire escape. Several of his teammates, who had just met him, were showing up to make him feel welcome and safe. He wouldn't be alone that night, as Jackie was in his early days in the Dodgers organization a few years prior. That's another kind of courage.

While I'm clear-eyed about its problems, I loved baseball as a kid and still do. Watching Jackie dart around the base paths was a revelation, and his impact on baseball was incalculable. But the social importance of what he did was far more important, and I knew that even as a kid. The larger importance of Robinson's courage was to inspire whole generations of people to stand up for themselves, to demand a place at the table, to ask for and expect to receive an honest shot at the American Dream. I don't think it's a stretch to draw a line from Jackie Robinson to Martin Luther King to Barack Obama and those who have achieved great heights in between.

We were lucky as kids to have that kind of an example. Carrying on my grandfather's legacy, I've been on the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation for many years and am leading the fundraising drive to build the new Jackie Robinson Museum in Manhattan. Jackie's courage, and his pivotal place in our history, is something we not only need to remember and honor on the opening weekend of a film, but to learn his lessons in perpetuity. Jackie was ready to fight the bigots who taunted him and worse. He would have loved to sock those guys in the jaw. But he took a longer view and was tough enough to hold back. He let his brilliance on the diamond make the ultimate statement. He expected that, over time, his intelligence and serious moral purpose would change opinion; maybe not among all the older generation in the stands, but with the younger ones, black and white, who cheered him on. He was right. I am living proof.

And as 42 makes plain, Jackie wasn't alone. Take the example of Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, played so well by Harrison Ford, who had the courage to bring Robinson into the big leagues, knowing he was going to stir up virulent racism. The point is: He did what he thought was right, he did what he knew was best for his ball club and for Dodgers fans, but he did it based on heart and conviction. That's all too rare today. Rickey was sent reams of hate mail which he stuffed into a filing cabinet. Imagine if such a historic transformation occurred today, with torrents of Tweets and talk radio chatter fomenting a viral chorus of hate. Very few, at the time, were taking the side of the black man. Rickey had the courage to do what was not popular because he knew it was the right thing.

Where is that kind of courage in our society today? The movie 42 comes along to inspire us with its message of courage at a time when there is such a lack of courage and lack of vision and lack of spine in our culture. Indeed, our leaders seem to respond only when faced with a fiscal cliff or a ferocious act of violence instead of doing the right thing on instinct. The movie, with its reminder of what Robinson and Rickey endured to do what was right, can serve as a wake-up call. History remembers the brave. It smiles on the courageous. It dismisses or demolishes the merely calculating, the play-it-safers, the sheep.

Jackie Robinson is the ultimate exemplar of the American dream. To continue to be great as a country, we need other exemplars. We're worried about what people think and polls say rather than what's right. 42 is about what's right rather than what people think. If we're going to break the barrier on our toughest national issues, we need courage from our political leaders.

There's a great scene in the movie where Dodgers captain Pee Wee Reese walks up to Jackie at a game in Cincinnati, knowing all eyes in the stands are on him. They include those from across the Ohio River, in Pee Wee's home state of Kentucky, unsparing in their own threats to the shortstop. Pee Wee put his arm around Jackie in a timeless gesture of friendship that quieted the crowd and looked up to his family, showing they were brothers. If only, for one moment, we could see Harry Reed and Mitch McConnell do that. At least it would be a start.

Joe Plumeri is chairman of Willis Group Holdings llc, the global insurance broker. He is also part owner of the Trenton Thunder (the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees) and the Lakewood Blue Claws (the Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies).

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