“42,” the Movie and Its Times

The movie “42” is a magnificent movie on its own; That it tells a tale about baseball makes it that much grander. It is a tale of strong men who were willing to challenge an established social code and change the world. The two major collaborators in this tale are Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodger general manager and owner, and Jackie Robinson, an extraordinary athlete as a four sport star at UCLA, Army Officer in WWII, and a gifted, talented baseball player.  The story of how Robinson got to the big leagues is a great tale in itself, but the background is even more amazing.

  In an early scene, Rickey is meeting with his staff and says he is going to bring a black man into major league baseball. He comments, that “there are a lot of black baseball fans in Brooklyn,” so Rickey’s motivation was economic. This fact has been born out by contemporary accounts and interviews. With this economic incentive, Rickey goes on a search for the right sort of man. Robinson is that man in every way.

How did Rickey know there were a lot of black baseball fans in New York? He was reflecting on the Negro League teams, the Newark Eagles, the New York Cubans and the New York Black Yankees who played in New York in 1946. The Eagles had Larry Doby (HOF 1998), Monte Irvin (HOF 1973) and Ray Dandridge on its pennant winning team.  These three teams had enthusiastic fans and Rickey said he wanted them. The movie is true to this history and this adds to its historical accuracy. (The Eagles were operated by Effa Manley the first and still leading female team operator, more on her later.)

Robinson was playing for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs when Rickey approached him. He then went to Spring Training trying to make the Montreal Royals, a Dodger affiliate, Baseball culture surrounding the play of the game is depicted with perfection, The tensions among players, the struggle to play well enough, is overlain by the tension of Robinson’s ethnicity. He was the first black player, or was he? 

There was no secret that the major leagues would be integrated at some point. There is significant evidence that black players had played before Robinson. My candidate for the first black was Bobby Estalella, thought to be part black, who played for the Washington Senators, but Estalella was a Cuban and Cubans got a pass. Recall Charlie Pryor who played Charles Snow, “Carlos Nevada,” in the movie “Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars.” Snow studied Spanish so he could pass for a Cuban to make the Majors. These efforts at using Cubans was simply a prelude to hiring African American players. It seems that when Robinson played in Brooklyn it was only a matter of time before other African American players would arrive. A scene in the press box with a writer predicting that blacks would supplant whites in the Major Leagues because “they had a longer heel bone,” was one of the humorous moments but illustrated the myth that blacks had some physical advantage over whites. When Robinson hit it out of the park, the other writers ask “did he hit that with his heel bone?”
Robinson as played by Chadwick Boseman who learned to hit and play like Robinson. It is his deft imitation of Robinson’s batting stance that I liked the most, followed by the base running. The movie shows Robinson as a hitter of note and an aggressive base runner. The movie shows the pitcher pitching out of the stretch rather than a windup every time Robinson gets to third base and has Robinson steal home in such a situation. This is just a director’s error but is one that is caught by every baseball fan in the audience, as is the umpire’s use of the outside, or American league, chest protector in National League games.
This movie uses special effects better than any baseball film ever. The speed of the pitched ball is shown at its lethal best.(See: ‘Baseball’s Timeless Appeal’ on this blog) I have never seen this before in a movie and it is done perfectly.
It is the graphic description of the grand old parks that I enjoyed most, as all baseball games were shown in the appropriate parks like Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, Wrigley Field, Sportsman’s Park, and the Polo Grounds, where you can see that deep center field where Mays made that wonderful catch in 1954.
The relationship between Jackie and wife, Rachel, is magical. and played wonderfully by Nicole Baharie. As the anchor-to-windward for Robinson, she is perfect, even to the point of giving batting instructions, “you’re lunging, Jack.”
Harrison Ford spent a lot of time studying Branch Rickey, a lawyer turned baseball executive. that was the masterful performance. Ford catches the stance, style, bluster, and bravado perfectly. I spent time with Rickey when I was a kid and I could smell the cigar again.
I discussed Rickey’s motivation above. He wanted to make money. Rickey was a lawyer and Robinson was under contract to the Monarchs when Rickey signed him to a Montreal contract. Usually when this happens, the former team would have been compensated for the loss, absent this, it must sue to recover. Rickey never compensated Negro League teams for players he took and there is no evidence he was ever sued. On the other hand, Bill Veeck, who had been watching Larry Doby for years, paid Effa Manley of the Eagles (see above) $11,000 as compensation for the lost player. Rickey said the Negro League owner were a bunch of petty crooks and hustlers, one team being financed by a gambler; Veeck saw them as baseball colleagues (Veeck told me he should have paid $100,000 for Doby.)
Doby followed Robinson by six weeks into the American League, so they share trail-blazer credit, joined in July by Hank Thompson with the St. Louis Browns. It was the American League that had the most black players in 1947. That there were three black players in the Majors in 1947 is not well known. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate, doing so in 1959.
This movie is important for a number of reasons. First, it tells a story of great men confronting a great evil and overcoming that barrier and changing a nation. Second, for younger viewers it will be a shocking view of segregated America. I don’t know how that will be dealt with, but for me, it was a sad memory of a disturbing time. This is a movie that transcends the theme of baseball to teach America an important moment, as important as any in our social history, and teaches a lesson for all to absorb and wonder how they would have acted if in the same position at that time.

Jackie Robinson’s Contribution to America

This is a speech I gave to a forum of the American Bar Association in 1997, the 50th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues and American History. Baseball had just spent the summer saying “Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball” and my speech corrects that idea and shows that he broke the color barrier in America.

Our subject for this seminar is the role of agents and attorneys in promoting civil rights in sports. I am completely convinced that the agent’s or attorney’s role is the vigorous pursuit of client’s interests. However, I also believe that the role of sports in civil rights has often been ignored, although that role, especially baseball’s, has been very significant.

    The singular event in sports civil rights was the breaking of the color barrier in 1947. We celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of that event this year. I attended such celebrations and was struck by the fact that no one dealt with the significance of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in both its contemporary and historic perspective. I will attempt to do that today. To do so, we must go to the beginning.

    The Constitutional Congress left two major issues unresolved. First, was the issue of federalism and states rights, and, second, was the issue of slavery. Eighty years after the passage of the Constitution, the slavery issue was settled, and the federalism issue partially resolved  in a great Civil War.  The emerging issue of civil rights was dealt with by the passage of the post war reconstruction laws that, unfortunately, failed to heal a torn nation. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the most tragic event in American history if for no other reason than the fact that he had the ability and foresight to heal the country. I have always been struck by the fact that Lincoln took a trip to Richmond within a week of its capture, and, with only a small group of sailors for protection, took a tour of the still smouldering city. Even at that time, with Southern armies still in the field and the battles still to be fought, Lincoln was pacifying Richmond. His death within a week of his visit to Richmond lead to harsh treatment for the South and resentments still felt today.

    Many of the tensions of the post civil war period were due to the laws passed just after the war ended. These reconstruction laws dealt with civil rights, but from our perspective today, they are most noted for the fact that from the time of their passing there were no civil rights laws  passed until the Eisenhower administration. The nation’s method of dealing with civil rights during that period was inaction as parallel universes based on race evolved under the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

    Plessy was decided in 1881, and it was two generations before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers and Brown v. Board of Education reversed it. In those years, our nation developed along the Plessy lines in more ways than education. Our society developed into parallel universes based on race. Of course, this situation could not be sustained because it was horribly unjust, economically stifling, and an unabashed violation of the Constitution. There were many events during the interim period that indicated the proper course, however, all steps forward were matched with steps backward. The step forward that stuck and marked the change from Plessy to Brown, was Jackie Robinson’s playing in the Major Leagues.  To understand this, we must look at the world of 1947.

    America was the leading economic nation and the dominate power on earth. Baseball was the king of the sports world. In this pre-TV time, major and minor league attendance was very high. So too was attendance for the teams of the Negro Leagues, many of whose teams played in Major League parks and out-drew their Major League opposites. I don’t believe that there is any greater example of the parallel universes that existed in America than the two separate major baseball leagues.

    In Griffith Stadium, Washington, the Senators would play a home stand and then the Homestead Grays would move in. The Senators’ owner loved to interact with the Grays’ players. He met with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard in his office and spoke of what magnificent players they were. He talked to them of playing in the Major Leagues, but that he could not do it because one of the effects of that would be to do damage to their league. The system in America was set up to perpetuate the parallel universes. Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers meant that the old system was over. Such was the pent-up energy for change, that Larry Doby signed with the Indians later in that same season and a nation was changed.

    The signing of a baseball player in Brooklyn was the pivotal civil rights event of the era. Its significance, great in its own right, was magnified because it was baseball that did it. This event was followed by the integration of the armed forces a year later.  The parallel universes had ended and it was baseball that broke the color barrier in America, not just in the Major Leagues.  The NBA and NFL, both of much less significance then, had been segregated and integrated off and on for years. It was the baseball event that had the social impact. I think this is because baseball is like life. It is undeniably real. It is played by real people, some of which are 5’6″ and weigh 150 lbs and others are 6″10″. It is played in real time, not by the clock. Its over when its over. It starts in the spring, grows all summer and is harvested in the fall with the most magnificent sports event of all, the World Series. Baseball continues to be our most diverse game, with players of European, Asian, African ancestry, and from all of the Americas, Asia, and Europe represented in the Majors today. Baseball responds quickly to changes in American culture. Today we see Asian players from Japan and Korea and tomorrow we will see Asian players from Topeka and San Jose.

    The significance of this diversity on the base paths is seen when viewed through the eyes of the greatest of the century’s civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “I Have A Dream Speech, ” Dr. King said it was his dream and vision for America to have a society in which a person is not known for the color of his skin but for his character.”

    In baseball, real people are measured by ability without regard for color, religion or national origin. Let us hope that baseball’s leadership for our country in 1947 is also followed in the next century. The question remains, however, as to what the role of the agent and lawyer is in promoting civil rights in sports. I think it may be that we must maintain a vigil to assure that rights are protected, principles are adhered to, and  raise the issue when they are not.