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Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson and itself

April 15, 2013
42: The True Story of an American Legend
Directed By Brian Helgeland

A few hours after seeing the new film 42 on its opening day here in Baltimore, I watched on television as another number 42, New York Yankees’ legendary reliever Mariano Rivera, finished off the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

Rivera is the last active player to wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42, which was unilaterally retired by Major League baseball on April 15, 1997 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut as the game’s first African-American player.  Players like Rivera, who had already worn the number for major league teams, were allowed to continue wearing it for the duration of their careers. Sixteen years later, Rivera has already announced that this will be his and the number 42’s final season.

Robinson’s number 42 is the only one afforded such exalted status. Not even Babe Ruth’s number 3 or Hank Aaron’s 44 have been officially de-activated on the field.

This Monday (today) and every April 15th, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, when every player on every team gets to wear 42, just for one day.

It’s an appreciative gesture that serves to remind those who can recall Robinson’s legacy and the role he played at a pivotal point in the history of baseball and the country while educating those less familiar with his story.

A current irony associated with baseball’s holiday of recognition is the fact that, since Robinson’s breakthrough, the percentage of African American players in the major leagues level has dwindled to single percentage points (estimated 7.7%-8.8%), the lowest measure since 1959.

While we were watching the movie, my girlfriend asked me why Robinson was given the number 42, and if it had been worn famously by any other players before him? I couldn’t think of anyone and also theorized that it was a relatively high number to be assigned at the time, like the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s you see during spring training, but Robinson made the number his own until baseball re-claimed it in both his and the game’s honor in 1997.

The movie 42 is delivered not necessarily from Robinson’s vantage point and feels more like the establishment’s take on Robinson’s story, in this case the establishment(s) being Major League Baseball and the current main-stream cinema. Major League Baseball doesn’t celebrate Robinson solely for his own accomplishments but counts him among its accomplishments. So too, 42 casts the game in a very favorable but not necessarily inappropriate light. Baseball likes to recognize and celebrate its own achievements and, in the case of Robinson and integration the major league game, was well ahead of the curve on civil rights. The movie presents a relatively sanitized version of Robinson’s story suitable for a family audience and carries the blessings of Robinson’s widow Rachel and Major League Baseball, which has used the film as a promotional tool in conjunction with its Jackie Robinson Day celebration.

Given the most sympathetic treatment of all is former Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey portrayed affectionately by all-time, good- guy, leading-man, Harrison Ford.

By any measure Rickey was one of the most progressive thinkers involved with the game, (he developing the minor-league farm system) but his motivation for pushing the integration of baseball was not completely altruistic. There was plenty of money to be made tapping into the Negro Leagues talent pool and fan base, a fact addressed by Rickey in the film as he explains to reluctant members of the Dodgers organization that, “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green.”

But it’s Rickey’s high-mindedness that takes center stage his character is deified in the film as a conglomerate of the collective conscience of those charged with accelerating the integration process. A misappropriated quote attributed to Rickey while chastising another major league team owner; “Someday you’re going to meet God and when he inquires as why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro it may not be a sufficient reply,” is actually a paraphrase of former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler’s own explanation for voting against 15 of 16 team owners in favor of integration in 1947.

The movie focuses tightly on the landmark year of 1947 and hurries through the events leading up to Robinson’s big league breakthrough, including his trial by fire integration of minor league baseball as a member of the Montreal Royals of the International league in 1946. We do see and hear Robinson given some rough treatment during opening day of the 1946 minor league season in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In real life, right here in Baltimore, Robinson was hazed and heckled mercilessly by race-baiting fans at old Municipal Stadium every time the Royals came to town during the 1946 season.

Watching the film with an integrated audience at the Rotunda Cinema, just a mile or so away from where Robinson suffered the aforementioned indignities also served to remind of the larger story behind the film about the United States of America beginning to realize its greater ideals.

Relative newcomer Chadwick Bozeman delivers of contemplative performance occupying Robinson’s unique place in time and doesn’t bring any baggage to the role arriving on the scene in a similar fashion to Robinson in his rookie season.

Jackie Robinson is a larger than life figure given a larger than life treatment in this out-sized film with all the trappings of a big-movie studio production geared towards a mass-audience.  For the most part the good guys and bad guys are painted in broad strokes without much subtlety or gray area, but the indulgences are forgivable because of the magnitude of the subject matter.