It took me awhile to go and see 42—the highly regarded film that tells the story of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, which was symbolic of so much more—and I was happy for the experience.
Even if his career played out before my birth, Jackie Robinson has long been one of my favorite players and certainly would be in my personal Mount Rushmore of all-timers. If you’re interested, I’d also find room for the one-and-only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron (my first sports hero, and the main reason why the number 44 has always been magical) and then some kind of tie among a whole bunch of Phillies players, Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Bob Gibson and even Albert Pujols) .
There are way too many to list, especially with my sometimes quirky selection of favorite Phillies players which would make room for Lonnie “Skates” Smith before true superstars like Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton.
Therein lies one of the peculiar beauties of sports and the nature of our loyalties, I suppose. And no, I’m not a Cardinals or Dodgers fan, even if Jackie and Sandy (who retired right after I turned seven, so I barely remember him, even if I became a huge MLB fan the following year) and Bob and Albert might lead a reasonable fan to this conclusion.
Although I cheered hard for Bob Gibson and company during those amazing World Series in 1967 and 1968 and adopted Hank Aaron as my favorite player quite a few years before he overtook the Babe in 1974, I am what I am—a diehard Phillies fan. So, how does this relate to 42? We’ll get there, I promise.
The movie 42 mostly chronicles Robinson’s 1947 Rookie of the Year—and trailblazer of the millennium—season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It starts with general manager Branch Rickey (almost a co-lead character in the film)’s then-daring decision to integrate baseball and find the right man who might be able to succeed in a climate of hostility, racism and a horrible “man” named Jim Crow. The film does a good job of portraying Rickey’s vision and resolve. Additionally, it accurately portrays the enormous combination of courage, confidence and restraint shown by Robinson.
The film—if this were a review, I’d give it four stars out of five—only hinted at how special a player Jackie was. Make no mistake: Robinson would have deserved a plaque in Cooperstown even if he only played that one season and batted around the Mendoza line. Of course, as a player, he was also Hall-worthy. While his career counting stats were not massive, he was, after all, 28 years old when he broke the color barrier in 1947. A look at his career showed that he was, truly, an amazing player—and not only a singularly inspirational one.
In his 10 years in the Majors, his career batting average was a robust .311 with very strong power numbers, especially for his main position, second base. He won one batting title, led the league in stolen bases twice, made six All-Star teams (even though, it seems as if he were snubbed his first two seasons) and his defensive numbers were also superlative. He also won a league MVP, while being perhaps, the most intrepid, disruptive force to ever lace them up on the basepaths.
Not so incidentally, Jackie’s Brooklyn Dodgers made six World Series appearances, all against those dynastic New York Yankees, only winning the fifth one, in 1955. Examining his stats and legacy, it would not be a purely sentimental pick to choose Jackie Robinson as the second baseman on my all-time team (assuming all were at their prime), joining a squad of Walter Johnson, Johnny Bench, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Mike Schmidt, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. If I just wanted a flat-out hitter at second, give me Hornsby; if I want an all-around game, leadership, grit and resolve, it comes down to Joe Morgan and Jackie. Both were superb, but give me “42.”
As depicted in the film, Philadelphia and other cities hardly rolled out the red carpet for Jackie, and to be fair, neither did a bunch of his Brooklyn teammates. One of the hardest things to watch in the film was a scene where the Dodgers were visiting Cincinnati—which was very close to Dodgers’ shortstop Pee Wee Reese’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The camera shows what is supposed to be Reese’s family sitting in the stands, focusing on a father and his young son speculating about how Pee Wee will perform that day. After some nice small talk, the father yells out the n-word at Robinson, which is then blindly repeated by his son.
As excruciating as this is to watch, it is somewhat mitigated by a feel-good moment when Pee Wee comes across the infield during warm-ups (Robinson was a first baseman as a rookie.) to make small-talk with a surprised Jackie and then puts his arm around his verbally abused teammate for all in the stands to see.
If Cincinnati was cruel, it was even worse in Philadelphia. With a snide reference to the moniker of “City of Brotherly Love”, we first learn that Philadelphia’s general manager is almost ready to forfeit the game if Robinson accompanies the team to Philly. A few minutes later, the team bus is turned away by the hotel’s manager, even though the team had been staying there for the last 10 years. But, it gets worse inside the ballpark.
In an era when bench jockeying was still a part of the game, we witness this art at its absolute worst and cruelest, as practiced by Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman. Suffice it to say that, while standing outside of the dugout, he unleashes a stream of ignorant, barbaric racial epithets that is uncomfortable for anyone with a soul and conscience to listen to.
It is one thing to read about how the Phillies (and by extension, Philadelphia) were the worst hosts to Robinson; it is yet another to be assaulted by it. Apparently, Chapman was the lowest of the low, and as it turned out, he was fired midway through the 1948 campaign, his last as a big league skipper.
(For more on Chapman, who was actually a very good player for the Yankees and other franchises, there is a fine piece by Alan Berra, for theatlantic.com.)
As a lifelong Phillies and Philly fan, it is hard to see a team depicted in this manner, but apparently, this incident was a matter of fact. It is also a matter of fact that the Phillies were the 14th MLB team (out of 16) to integrate; their pioneer was a non-descript shortstop name John Kennedy. The date? April 22, 1957. By that time, Jackie Robinson had already retired, six of the previous eight NL League MVPs (including three by Robinson’s teammate, Roy Campanella) were African American, and Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were young superstars. Progress came quite slowly to Philly, or at least to the Phillies.
66 years later, a lot of things, quite thankfully, have changed here and elsewhere. As somebody who loves this city and its fan base—warts and all—I would like to think that Robinson, Campy, Don Newcombe and company would have all been celebrated here, if only we had a general manager named Branch Rickey. We’ll never know that answer, but I’d like to think that for as much as Philadelphia is maligned (often unfairly) we would have come to our senses. Still, to be frank and inelegant, it stinks that New York got Jackie at Ebbets Field and Willie (if four years later) in the Polo Grounds and we got a profane clown named Ben Chapman.
The eternal lesson in all this is that sports should be the ultimate meritocracy: you can either cut it on the playing field or you can’t. There will always be room for passionate, partisan fanaticism in the stands and never room for violence or violent language.
And there should always be room in our hearts and in our memories for that amazing force of nature who wore “42” with such pride—the late, great Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
Matt Goldberg, a former featured writer for Bleacher Report, is the creator of Bagels and Jocks and a co-author of the 2013 A Snowball's Chance: Philly Fires Back Against the National Media.