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Why Everyone Should Go See "42"

Posted: 04/12/2013 3:15 pm

I have not yet seen "42" but I'm giving it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. If I had ten thumbs I would give it ten thumbs-up, because I want everyone to see the movie -- especially young people, a shocking number of whom don't know who Jackie Robinson was.

42, of course, was the uniform number (now retired throughout the major leagues) that Robinson donned when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and slid swiftly, aggressively and gracefully into cultural history, just as he slid into countless bases under the tags of frustrated opponents. "42" tells the story of his groundbreaking rookie-of-the-year season and, presumably, its antecedents: the decision of Dodger executive Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) to break the unwritten taboo and sign an African-American player; the Mahatma's (as Rickey was called by the sporting press) wise choice of Robinson for the daunting assignment; Jackie's agreement to forswear retaliation and keep his cool in the face of the inevitable backlash.

I hope the movie tells the story well. I hope it is faithful to the truth. I hope it does justice to the drama, the tension, the ferocity of the resistance to integrating the national pastime, the pain endured by Jackie and his wife Rachel (an unsung hero if ever there was one), the courage of the Robinsons and their allies, and the sweet joy of the ultimate triumph. I hope it's a box office smash and wins many awards, because each person who sees the movie improves the odds that this vital episode in our epic racial saga won't be forgotten. If the Rickey-Robinson experiment had not succeeded, the civil rights movement could not have unfolded as it did, when it did, the way it did. No less an authority than Martin Luther King Jr. said as much.

It will seem bizarre to young people that there was a time when black ballplayers were barred from Major League Baseball. I'm sure the historical context is made plain in the film, and the racism that was once taken for granted is depicted in all its mad absurdity.

What I hope is also depicted accurately is how much Jackie Robinson meant to ordinary Americans. Not just baseball fans (even racists admired his skill and his find-a-way-to-win competitiveness), and not just African Americans, who embraced Jackie like a Moses leading the way to the promised land. I mean average white Joes and Janes, the subway straphangers, the bleacherites, the fans watching Dodger games in saloons or in sweltering apartments without air-conditioning, the workers in factories and offices who listened on transistor radios, the first generation Italians, Irish and Jews who identified with the struggle to be accepted as a fellow citizen, and the right-minded people all over the country - many of whom rose above their own racial ignorance thanks to baseball - who cheered for the Dodgers because far more was riding on what Jackie did, and didn't do, than the outcome of a ballgame or a pennant race.

I was a toddler when Jackie played his first season in hallowed Ebbets Field, but I grew up hearing about his struggle the way some kids grew up hearing about the Civil War or the Passion of Christ. I became a Dodger-cap-wearing, mitt-pounding, box-score-reading fanatic in time to have my little heart broken every October when the team came up inches shy of World Series deliverance. The Bums were my heroes, and Jackie was the hero of heroes, because grown men got teary-eyed when they talked about him and women who didn't know a home run from a field goal invoked him when arguing about bigotry or social justice. Even at age eight I sensed that the annual Brooklyn cry of "Wait Til Next Year" held some kind of cosmic significance and was linked to my country's destiny.

I was in grade school when, one year after Brown vs. Board of Education, the Dodgers finally broke the jinx and achieved redemption. That victory over the hated Yankees had such an impact on me that I wrote a novel about it 37 years later. Jackie had a belly by then, and he had lost a step or two. He played third base most of that year, 1955, instead of second, and an injury kept him out of the lineup in the deciding game of the World Series, when the karmic winds of baseball finally blew toward Brooklyn. But we knew, in our delirious joy, that the victory belonged above all to number 42.

Go see "42," and take a child with you.

 

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