I was watching the film 42, the number that Jackie Robinson wore when he played for the Dodgers, the only number ever retired by Major League Baseball, over the weekend while also reading stories about looting and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri.
42 is about Jackie Robinson’s entry into professional baseball. It’s a great film, updating the story that starred Jackie Robinson in the 1950 bio-pic film The Jackie Robinson Story. The racism and bigotry are evident in the North and the South. Branch Rickey,1 the general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted a player who had the guts not to fight back when he would be confronted with inevitable racism, bigotry, and threats to his life and that the lives of his wife and child that would come his way.
Robinson: “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
Rickey: “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”
Robinson: “You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.”
Four things caught my attention.
First, Rickey believed that racism and bigotry were moral wrongs. “Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.” At the same time, he also believed that color mattered — the color green. Money does not carry any prejudice. With black ball players, Rickey believed he could increase attendance and make more money.
Second, character mattered. Robinson was a man of character who had proved that character in difficult situations. He stood up for himself while being excellent in the things that he did. No one could accuse him of not being able to compete with the best.
Third, there was a vibrant black culture in the midst of racial prejudice. Consider the work of Wendell Smith. He’s the reporter that Rickey hired to be his advance man. He may have been the person who recommended Robinson to Rickey. There were a lot of good black players playing in the Negro League (e.g., Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Roy Campanella). It was important to Rickey that they got the right man.
Smith was black. He played baseball in college, but could not be drafted because of baseball’s color barrier. He used his job as a reporter to advance the cause of blacks in athletics. Smith wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, “one of the top black newspapers in the United States.”
Fourth, the treatment of Robinson created sympathy. Young blacks today could learn from Robinson’s story. Also, Whites could learn a few lessons as well. Racism and bigotry are deeply rooted in a lot of people. Ben Chapman, the coach for the Philadelphia Phillies at the time, is a case in point.
There is a scene that shows a man and his son at the ball park about to watch the Dodgers play in Cincinnati. The son’s favorite player is Pee Wee Reese who plays shortstop for the Dodgers. Being from Kentucky, Reese had a lot of fans in Cincinnati.
When Robinson enters the field, boos and epithets start to fly. The boy’s father starts hurling racial slurs at Robinson. The boy follows his father’s example and joins in the taunt. Then Reese jogs over to Robinson and puts his arm around his shoulders to show his support. Now the boy is conflicted.
Non-blacks have a role to play, the least of which is to be aware of what black people have endured and what they still endure. At the same time, blacks can’t use any of this as an excuse to burn down the place.
Rickey makes the point that those opposing Robinson are creating sympathy. Here’s a man who is doing his job, not hurting anybody, producing for his team, and caring for his family, and he’s being attacked.
Here’s how Rickey explained “sympathy”:
“Sympathy. It’s a Greek word. It means to suffer. I sympathize with you. It means I suffer with you. That Philadelphia manager [Ben Chapman], he’s doing me a service. . . . He’s creating sympathy on Jackie’s behalf. Philadelphia is Greek. It means brotherly love.”
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It’s hard to be sympathetic, to suffer along with someone, when they’re burning down their own neighborhood and blaming people who had nothing to do with the shooting of Michael Brown. It doesn’t help when so-called black leaders add fuel to the fire by laying the a guilt trip on white America.
- Rickey’s first name was Wesley, named after the famed Methodist Wesley ministers and hymn writers, John and Charles Wesley. He was a committed Christian. [↩]
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