Only towards the end of “42,” the powerful new film by Brian Helgeland, does Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who in 1945 decided to break baseball’s “color barrier” with a dynamic ballplayer from the Negro Leagues, reveal why he decided to take on that challenge. His story, related to the player by Harrison Ford (in possibly the best performance of his career), strips away all of the business-of-baseball cover he had theretofore claimed as his motivation.
The player to whom he reveals his own guilt-ridden past is the great Jackie Robinson, who is certainly the hero of the film. But in terms of history, he shares that title with Mr. Rickey, the cigar-chomping, Bible-quoting baseball genius, who, with the signing of Robinson and the other black stars who followed him on those Dodger teams, ushered in an era of greatness for his team and opened doors for African-Americans in all walks of life.
As movies go, “42” probably isn’t this year’s “Citizen Kane.” If it is less than hagiographic, it certainly doesn’t want for a heavy dose of sentimentality, complete with a musical score that almost drowns some of the film’s more poignant moments. But the movie should have impact on a generation that may never have known of the horrors that Rickey challenged and that Robinson overcame in the first years following World War II.
It was a time when Jim Crow was alive and well and not just in the Deep South. One of the most virulent racist displays in the film comes from the Phillies’ manager who taunts the rookie mercilessly in an early visit of the team to Philadelphia. In another scene in that city, the players are refused their normal hotel accommodations because of Robinson’s presence on the team during the 1947 season. He wasn’t even supported, initially at least, by many of the Brooklyn residents who attended the team’s games in Ebbets Field (recreated with remarkable CGI accuracy in the film), and was scorned by most of his teammates before they learned that he could actually help them win ballgames.
As much as Robinson’s courage is vividly portrayed (in a fine performance by Chadwick Boseman), Rickey’s is more subtly presented, partly because he never appears shaken once he makes the decision to go ahead with the Robinson experiment. Ford’s portrayal of Rickey is nothing like his action hero roles. Here, he is gruff and not all that attractive, physically or otherwise. But he is steadfast in his belief that the color barrier in baseball must be broken, and he is equally unswerving in his distaste for racist displays, even from his own minor league manager (who quickly gets the message and gets on board with the plan).
I wept several times as I watched the film last weekend. Most of the tears, I’m sure, were born of nostalgia for that time in my childhood when Jackie was one of the superstars on my team (a team laden with many great players, all thanks to Mr. Rickey’s astute judgment of baseball talent). I fell for Robinson and the Dodgers a half dozen years after the color barrier had been broken, and, in my youthful innocence, I didn’t even understand that Robinson’s skin color had been a big deal only a few years before I discovered him and his team.
So it may well be with today’s young people, at least with respect to racial differences. And that is part of the Rickey-Robinson legacy, as, it can well be argued, is the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama. Indeed, even the suddenly rapid movement to acceptance of homosexuality and of the demand for equal rights for the LGBTI community can be traced to the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. Ditto the move to immigration reform, which seems, finally, to be gaining real traction, as xenophobia dissolves to political realities.
Let’s remember what America was like in 1945 as regards racial differences. The country had just ended a war that had seen Japanese-Americans interred lest they pose a threat to the nation’s internal security. That German-Americans were not similarly treated is clear evidence that skin color was a mark of distinction and a cause for prejudice. Blacks who fought in the war were segregated in their own units, another indication of skin color differences as a basis for prejudice. Harry Truman only desegregated the military in 1948, notably after the Rickey-Robinson experiment had succeeded.
Schools weren’t desegregated as a matter of law until 1954 (with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education). The Equal Rights Act (making segregation unlawful in public facilities) wasn’t passed until 1964, and the Voting Rights Act (making poll taxes and literacy tests illegal) wasn’t enacted until 1965.
By then, of course, the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (another hero, to be sure) was in full swing, but query: how much more difficult would King’s movement have been had the color barrier in sports still existed at that time?
At their first meeting, Rickey told Robinson that he wanted him to be man enough not to fight back. Rickey needed Robinson to be a fighter, but he needed him to fight smart, which meant beating the opposition on the ball field and ignoring the taunts and threats that he faced in the process. Had Robinson failed, either as a player or as a human being, the great likelihood is that baseball would have reverted to its segregated ways for years to come. And, with the failed experiment, racist attitudes would have been emboldened, making the success of King’s movement that much more problematic.
Certainly, in time, justice would have prevailed. But how much time? Ten years, twenty, fifty? Who can say?
What we can say is that in 1945, baseball was America’s game, and, at its highest level, it was only open to white men, emblematic of the way the white-dominant nation viewed those with different skin colors. But after Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, skin color could never again justify discrimination, and the country would never be the same.