BY GARRY AND MARILYN ARMSTRONG
For more than a week, we’ve been watching (again) Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary series: “Baseball.” It brought back so many memories. With so much social and cultural division and hatred in our country, we need more baseball. At one point in the documentary, a Dominican play says “We’ve never fought a war or had an insurrection during baseball season.” We need to remember battles fought and lives sacrificed to reach this day. It should not be in vain. Let us at the very least, treat each other with respect and fairness.
We meant to see 42 in the movies, but it got away from us. By the time we were ready to see it, it was gone. That turned out to be fine, because I bought the movie and we had a private screening. Time for baseball and history. Not only baseball. Not only history.
The integration of sports is taken so much for granted today, younger generations can’t imagine it being any other way. This is the movie that shows how it happened. It’s a movie about many things. It’s the story of how and why Jackie Robinson became the first non-white player in Major League Baseball. How this was the start of the integration of all professional sports. It was the beginning of modern baseball as well as the first significant move toward integration in the United States since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
That it was our original home town team, the Brooklyn Dodgers who did it makes the story personal for us. Branch Rickey, owner of the Dodgers, decided it was time to make a difference. Because he could, he changed the world. Harrison Ford as Mr. Rickey mumbles. He’s also real, touching, human. He actually made me cry. Harrison Ford is not known for nuanced performances, but he gives one in this movie.
I commented that Harrison used to be President, not to mention Indiana Jones. Garry pointed out that owning the Dodgers was far more important. I agreed. Because Garry and I agree: there’s nothing more important than baseball. Especially right now.
Chadwick Boseman bears a strong physical resemblance to Jackie Robinson. He doesn’t sound like him, but that’s quibbling. Nicole Beharie is a pretty good likeness of Rachel Isum Robinson. Who, as Garry pointed out, is even today, one fine-looking woman. It was no accident Rickey chose a good-looking couple. He knew what they would be up against and it would be hard enough. Any small advantage they could gain by just being attractive … well, they were going to need it.
It’s impossible for those brought up after the Civil Rights Amendment to understand the intensity of the hatred, anger and rage that bringing a Black man into baseball caused.
It was 1947, the year I was born. The big war in Europe was over and returning Black soldiers were appalled and enraged that fighting for their nation had done nothing to alleviate the oppression of Jim Crow laws. Segregation was not merely as bad as it had been. It was worse.
Moreover, returning Black soldiers made racists throughout America nervous that their position of supremacy was being threatened. They apparently still feel that way, 70 years later.
It would take 17 more years before the civil rights amendment passed and at least two decades more to make it stick. Twenty-five more years to get a Black President into office. Who knows if we will ever stop hating people because are different color. Race — and the judgments we make based on skin color — are so ingrained, so automatic. So very American. More than apple pie or the flag, we the people love to hate. It’s the most universal of all behaviors. Not as we prefer to advertise, our ability to love, but our willingness to hate. Hate is easier, effortless.
Chadwick Boseman not only looks like Jackie Robinson. He has his swing. I assume they taught him the swing, but they did it well and got that gritty baseball “feel” into the movie. Everyone plays their part with authenticity, as those of us old enough to remember the real guys can attest. Maybe that’s the problem with many of the critics: they never saw the real guys, met them, cheered for them. Lived and died with them through the long season of baseball. They don’t remember, but we do.
The cinematography is great, moving smoothly and naturally between wide and close shots to give you the feeling of the game and more. Nice, tight segues. What is even better captured is the intensity of the abuse Robinson was forced to put up with, to swallow without complaint while simultaneously playing at the top of his game. I’d like to see any modern player survive this.
In many ways, Robinson didn’t survive it. He lived through it, but it killed him from the inside. He blasted open the door of the future and it cost him dearly.
Why did Rickey do it? There was a strong moral component. Rickey believed it was the right thing to do. The right thing to for baseball. But it was also a sound business decision. There was a huge pool of talent out there in the Negro Leagues. The Dodgers needed all the help they could get. By bringing in first Jackie Robinson while planning to bring up more Black players, Rickey figured he was going to do some serious winning. He was right.
Christopher Meloni, ex of Law and Order: SVU, nails Leo Durocher, the crazy, quirky Brooklyn Dodger’s manager. He actually looks like Durocher.
If you love baseball, see it. Even if you don’t love baseball, see it anyway. See it for the history, to remember how hard the battle for equal rights was, is and will continue to be. How much baseball, the American pastime, has always been at the center of the American experience.
And finally see it because it’s the story of a genuine red-blooded American hero. In every sense of the word.
From Garry Armstrong:
I have to admit I was tearing up in places even though there’s no cryin’ in baseball. Critics aside, this was no pleasant Hollywood fable but a fairly authentic account of Jackie Robinson, the man and the player and the times that swirled around him.
Much of this is first-hand recall for me. I was 5 years old and already a budding baseball fan in Brooklyn in 1947 when the young player wearing number 42 became a household name. I remember all the excitement in my neighborhood. Some of it I understood. Some of it I didn’t. The newspapers and radio were full of the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson and how what they were doing would perhaps cause problems all across the country.
I remember angry things shouted by White people we encountered. I recall some very nice comments offered by White people who frequently said Jackie Robinson was “a credit to your people.”
Jackie Robinson steals home in the 1955 World Series
I followed the Dodgers very closely over the years. I knew their lineup by heart, could emulate their swings and could recite from memory details of their personal lives along with the baseball stuff. In later years, I’d have the good fortune to meet many of the Boys of Summer including Peewee, Campy, Big Newk, Ralphie Branca, Gil Hodges, The Duke (My hero) and Jackie Robinson.
Later, as a reporter, they gave me their own first hand accounts of what it was like – that memorable year of 1947. I would also hear from Red Barber, the legendary sportscaster who called almost all of the games during the ’47 season for the Dodgers. One poignant memory involves a conversation with Campy (Roy Campanella) and Jackie Robinson. I was now a young reporter and a familiar face to many of the aging Dodgers. Campy was always “the diplomat”, pleasant and smiling.
Jackie always seemed angry. I thought he was mad at me sometimes until Campy said he was just “Jackie being Jackie”. The conversation was about how young Black people conduct themselves. Jackie thought many were irresponsible. Campy said they were just kids doing what kids do. Jackie glared at Campy and then smiled at me saying. “You get it, don’t you?” I just nodded.
Sorry I strayed from the movie but it evoked so many, many memories. And, thanks Harrison Ford, for a splendid portrayal of Branch Rickey!