Saw the movie 42 at 1:00 on its opening day, appropriately rolled out close enough to coincide with the opening of the baseball season.
The film is well done, and I learned two things I hadn’t known or at least had forgotten:
1) Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is the only jersey number retired by every team in his honor.
2) Leo Durocher, then manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was suspended for one year from baseball because his adulterous dalliance that raised the ire of the Church.
It was certainly a different time in society in the post WW II years, and the movie is social commentary about Dodgers owner Branch Rickey’s motives and Jackie Robinson’s resolve in breaking the long white color line in baseball.
As if sports fans in the town of Philadelphia needed more disrespect, the movie shines a spotlight on the harsh treatment that Jackie Robinson received in his rookie year from Phillies manager Ben Chapman. A self-proclaimed redneck from Tennessee, Chapman was merciless in his heckling and baiting of Robinson with racist taunts. Evidently he was an equal opportunity offender, having a track record of taunting Jews and other “others”, with Robinson bringing out the best vitriol that Chapman had to offer.
According to the story line in the movie, Philly is depicted as a racist town, one in which the Dodgers team bus was turned away from the Ben Franklin Hotel because of Robinson’s presence. I’m not sure if that was fact or Hollywood license, but Chapman’s bigotry was well documented. The film shows Herb Pennock, the Phillies GM, getting word from the Commissioner of Baseball to curtail Chapman’s abuse. Ultimately Branch Rickey arranged for the Chapman’s photo shoot with Robinson making peace by holding a bat together. Evidently Chapman still refused to shake Robinson’s hand, and was fired the following year – a year which also saw Pennock die of a cerebral hemorrhage adding injury to insult.
Philly was a segregated town when I grew up there in the ’50s – there was no such thing as an integrated neighborhood. The Phillies were the last team to break its color barrier, not having a major league ballplayer of color until 1957, the year Jackie Robinson retired. I’ve remarked to friends through the years that bench players of color always seemed to congregate at the far end of the dugout, away from the entrance to the clubhouse, as if symbolically at the back of the bus. Even as recently as this year I sensed an undertone when attending a Cole Hamels charity event during spring training at the Phillies home in Clearwater, Florida. The handful of African American players on the team who came over to the barbecue sequestered themselves on the periphery, with seeming disinterest in interacting with the all-white crowd, while other players and coaches graciously engaged with the fans. If there is a residual racial divide in the Phillies organization or in the stands, as it has been alleged there still is in baseball, it would not be surprising for African American players to share a stronger bond. I made a point of wishing all the players well.
The pot was stirred again recently by an article in Philadelphia Magazine about whites having to tiptoe around their feelings about race relations in the City, with their African American Mayor (Nutter) calling the magazine to task. The Phillies have established a tradition that on opening day the players enter the stadium through center field, proceeding through a reception line. Mayor Nutter was part of the line, and it caught my eye that he greeted the African American players with special warmth – again an understandable bond with the Philly Mag article having stoked the embers of racial divide. For whatever reasons, white Philly fans continue to have a love/hate relationship with their teams’ elite black athletes in recent history such as Allen Iverson, Donovan McNabb, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard.
In this Philly Sports History blog there’s a very revealing depiction of Robinson from Mickey Mantle’s book, The Quality of Courage:
There’s an odd thing about Jackie Robinson. I myself was never very friendly with him, and I have found that a lot of people who knew him in and out of baseball really dislike him. He’s a hard man for some people to like because he isn’t soft and smooth-talking and syrupy. He is tough and independent and he says what he thinks, and he rubs people the wrong way. But I have never heard of anyone who knew Jackie Robinson, whether they liked him or disliked him, who didn’t respect and admire him. That might be more important than being liked.
In that sense, one comes away from the film 42 with a very good sense of how dedicated Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson were to one another, and to the monumental cultural shift that they undertook. One also realizes that they were very special people in their respective roles, inviting respect and admiration. Parties of both sides of the racial divide need to embrace this message.