Sports column by Karl Lindholm: Thoughts upon watching ’42’
I knew I had a problem when my friend Ben, from California, e-mailed me after watching “42,” the Jackie Robinson story, and being profoundly moved. He said, “Tell me again why you’re not looking forward to seeing this movie.”
True, I have expressed ambivalence. I sometimes tire of the exclusivity of the focus on Jackie Robinson. The more I have learned about the African-American experience in baseball, the more rich stories and worthy figures I have become aware of.
But when it comes to recognizing those figures, it’s all Jackie Robinson all the time. In my course at Middlebury College, “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro leagues,” I discourage final essays on Jackie. It’s been done. There’s so much else to be examined.
The great Negro leagues players run from the virtually ignored today (Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson) to the totally ignored (Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, Rube Foster). There are 39 Negro leaguers in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
I would have Major League Baseball acknowledge Negro League pioneers, in addition to Robinson, and find ways to shine the light on them too. Jackie Robinson was part of an historical process. As Donn Rogosin, author of “Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues,” put it:
“Baseball’s integration was not perceived as the inevitable consequence of the history of Negro baseball and changing race relations in the United States. Instead, the drama of two fascinating men, Rickey and Robinson — the stern but loving white father and the combative black son — obscured, at least in the white world, the forces and people who had made integration possible.
“The Negro leagues were founded with the aim, ultimately, of integrating the game. ‘We have to be ready when the day comes,’ Rube Foster told Elwood Knox, one of the league’s founders in 1920.” The second black player in the majors in the 20th century, Larry Doby, suited up for Cleveland just 12 weeks after Jackie Robinson appeared in a Dodger uniform in 1947. The Doby story offers a dramatic counter-narrative to the Rickey/Robinson saga. Indians owner, the “maverick” Bill Veeck, for example, compensated Negro league teams when he signed their players; Rickey didn’t.
Now, let me set the record straight:
These reservations do not diminish in any way my admiration for Jackie Robinson. I admire him beyond any other public figure. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of Civil Rights heroes along with Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass.
Jackie Robinson is truly a hero, an enduring hero, unalloyed and unblemished by time. He was a man of stunning talent, courage, integrity, discipline, loyalty, and rectitude. He changed America, changed the attitudes of Americans toward race.
Jackie Robinson was just a baseball player, true, but understand that baseball was truly the “national pastime.” It’s hard to exaggerate its importance in American culture in the 100 years after the Civil War.
Every town, church, factory, school, military unit, social club had a team, and leagues of all kinds proliferated. Football and basketball were relatively minor sports. This game, with “home” as its primary symbol, was a powerful force of assimilation to immigrant Americans. Kids, boys anyway, played baseball, baseball, baseball.
When Robinson, in their epic meeting in Brooklyn in 1945, responded to Rickey’s description of the provocation he was likely to face, with “Do you want a man who’s afraid to fight back,” Rickey responded, “I want a man with guts enough not to fight back,” and the Civil Rights Movement of the next decade was foretold.
Martin Luther King Jr. said of Jackie Robinson: “(He) underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”
Later, Dr. King said to Robinson’s Dodger teammate Don Newcombe, “You’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and (Larry) Doby and Campy (Roy Campanella) made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.”
Jackie Robinson paid a price: he died young of old age, 53, of complications from diabetes and heart disease. He was nearly blind, had trouble walking, yet he threw out the first pitch at Game Two of the 1972 World Series, on the 25th anniversary of his breakthrough.
On this occasion, he chided baseball for not making more progress, saying he was “pleased” with the honor of that day but would be “tremendously more pleased when I see a black face … managing in baseball.”
Nine days later he died, and never saw another man named Robinson, Frank, become the first big league manager in Cleveland in 1975.
Jackie Robinson would undoubtedly be disappointed that black kids in America have largely given up baseball, preferring basketball and football, in part because of the abundance of athletic scholarships in those sports. In 1975, 27 percent of major league ballplayers were African-American. Today, that number is 8 percent.
Oh yes, the movie, “42.” I liked it. It’s very good.
A great story. Well-told. Again.
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