This seemed like a good week to watch a movie about Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball in the United States. A brave, strong man.
After all, Friday was Jackie Robinson Day across the MLB. (Most years, the day is celebrated on April 15, the anniversary of the day in 1947 when Robinson first took the field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. But this has been an unusual year.)
Also this Friday, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Robinson in the 42 film, died four years after a diagnosis of serious colon cancer.
Apparently Boseman had been sick two years ago when he played valiant T’Challa in Black Panther.
He must have been even more sick when he when he acted in this year’s Da Five Bloods. He seems to have been a private man (unlike many celebrity “influencers”) and to have preferred to share his struggles only with family and very close friends.
In this, like the characters he played in those three films, Boseman left a legacy of character, of self-control, and, for those of us who believe in such things, of grace.
Back to the movie: The story opens with Robinson playing baseball in the Negro Leagues when he is invited by Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to join one of the Dodgers’ farm teams. Rickey justifies the move as good business — there are many Black baseball fans, after all — but Rickey has personal and religious reasons as well.
The first thing Robinson does is to phone the love of his life, Rae/Rachel (Nicole Behari) and propose to her. Then they head for Florida, where spring training and Robinson’s many more trials begin. They are bumped off an airplane to make room for white passengers. People in the neighborhood where they are quartered issue threats and hound them out of town.
But the baseball is good, and Robinson proves himself (batting .665 over a short pre-season) and is traded up to play in Ebbetts Field, then the Dodgers home stadium. He is issued a jersey whose number is, yes, 42.
Rickey has warned Robinson that he must be the bigger man when he is called vile names, when he is beaned by pitchers and when runners sliding into his position at first base attempt to spike his ankles. His teammates’ initial reactions range from hostile to cool.
Robinson is human, and the frustrations are awful. Over time, his even temperament and his skill win admirers who should have supported him in the first place. But it’s never easy.
This movie has been criticized as formulaic to the point of hagiography, but I’m not sure how it could be otherwise. It’s all true, after all. The point is that an honorable man endured despicable pressure from colleagues, fans, other teams and their fans and won them over to become the Rookie of the Year and lead the Dodgers to win the National League pennant in 1947.
His stoicism opened the national pastime to uncountable fine stars — think Willy Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, among many others — and, in a more commercial sense, to MLB’s survival over the long term. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one human.
But it’s not easy to watch.
When the film was released, Chadwick Boseman spoke of his own discomfort in facing the verbal slurs he faced just playing Jackie Robinson around the 5:45 point of this online interview.