I’m not a baseball fan. It was never a sport that my parents watched much when I was growing up (something that’s changed since the Red Sox started doing well), and while I enjoy attending games, it’s not an activity I want to do often. So when Ben and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum a couple years ago I figured this would be a stop just for him, the way the Mark Twain House was a stop just for me.
Still, I made an effort to find exhibits that would interest me. Being a fan of A League of Their Own I of course gravitated to the Women in Baseball area, and also loved the display of World Series rings (this was the one area that attracted equal attention from men and women, which was pretty cool). But the one exhibit that left the biggest impression on me was the space honoring Jackie Robinson, the African American ball player credited with integrating Major League Baseball. The display includes photos and mementos from the player’s career, the same as the areas dedicated to other greats of the game. However, Robinson’s area includes something the others do not: copies of handwritten death threats he received simply for playing baseball alongside white men.
42 tells Robinson’s story, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as seeing his Brooklyn Dodgers jacket displayed along side the threats of backwards racists. I teared up while watching this for sure, but I cried much more standing in that museum. This movie does a good job of showing what Robinson was up against, but it doesn’t feel big or grand enough to honor the man’s legacy. I suppose this could be intentional– he was just a regular guy, tasked with a remarkable challenge– but 42 feels more like a television movie than a Hollywood production.
That said, the cast of 42 is excellent. Harrison Ford is the most famous name here, playing Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ executive who makes the decision to desegregate the team. Ford is great as Rickey, perfectly portraying a man who was both a racial idealist and a cynical business man. In fact, I applaud the film for getting this right. Rickey did want to desegregate the sport because it was the right thing to do, but he also recognized that it would be good from a financial standpoint. It would have been tempting to make this character a saint, but it certainly wouldn’t have been accurate. Chadwick Boseman is Jackie Robinson, a role that I imagine would have been difficult to play. Boseman easily carries the film, which is no small feat given that this is only his second movie and starring role. Another standout is Alan Tudyk, who portrays a racist baseball manager who mercilessly heckles Robinson during a game. This was one of the hardest scenes to watch, but it is absolutely essential to understanding the constant racism Robinson was receiving even from within baseball itself.
Despite its shortcomings, 42 is an incredibly moving film that deals with an important part of American history. People may doubt the impact and importance of sports, but they absolutely have the power to change the culture. I definitely recommend anyone, sports fan or not, watch this movie. And if you get the chance to visit Cooperstown and see Jackie Robinson’s tribute there, do it.
Let’s be clear here, this ‘true story’ of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball, is likely not 100% accurate. As with all movies based on a true story, I’m sure some artistic license has been taken here to make Jackie’s challenges more dramatic. Despite this, I have no doubt that the challenges Robinson faced were unlike any that anyone before him had to deal with. In the movie they joke about how this is no different than when the first Italian played for the Yankees. I’m sorry but, no Italian was ever a slave in America. The comparison is not the same. Jackie Robinson faced blatant racism and prejudice from far more people than Joe DiMaggio might have when he started playing.
42 tells the story of Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) first few years in professional baseball, his journey from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It tries to document all of the hardships he faced, from his Dodger teammates creating a petition to prevent a black man from joining their team, to opposing managers and players being outright racist to him. There are scenes that depict opposing players throwing the ball at his head for no reason, or spiking his legs to cause an injury. His team is not allowed in a hotel due to the fact there is a black man in their team. As I said, it is unlikely this is 100% true, but it is also unlikely that this is 100% false as well. Robinson faced challenges nobody before him had had to face. In the end, Robinson had to prove his talent was more important than the colour of his skin, opening the door for every black kid who has ever dreamed of being a professional sports star. Robinson is the only player in all of baseball whose number has been retired by every team, this gesture shows what an impact he had on the game, and how it would never be the same after he left it.
The most interesting thing for me about this film is that it really wasn’t that long ago. It just boggles the mind that less than 70 years ago, people would react this way towards a black player joining a professional team. There are likely living relatives of these players and coaches who would have to live with the fact their ancestors behaved in this way. It really is such a weird thing to think about that this kind of racism did happen, and it really wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people relate the story of Jackie Robinson’s plight to the current issue of gay rights. I guess the two are comparable, but I have a hard time believing that any gay sports player would have as hard of a time as Robinson did.
This movie is actually really good. It portrays the world of 1940s baseball quite well. The acting is really good. Boseman is terrific as Robinson. You feel for him and the abuse he cops, but know he can’t fight back as he will be pigeon holed as a hot head with a temper. He carries the film really well, ably supported by a gruff Harrison Ford as a Dodgers executive. The performance of the cast helps tell an important story that is still relevant today.