One of America's most iconic and inspiring stories—Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line in 1947—is retold in the film 42, which opens nationally this weekend. Even if you're not a baseball fan, the film will tug at your heart and have you rooting for Robinson to overcome the racist obstacles put in his way. It is an uplifting tale of courage and determination that is hard to resist, even though you know the outcome before the movie begins.
But despite bravura performances by relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and superstar Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey (the Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager who recruited Robinson and orchestrated his transition from the Negro Leagues to the all-white Major Leagues), the film strikes out as history, because it ignores the true story of how baseball's apartheid system was dismantled.
The film portrays baseball's integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete and Rickey, the shrewd strategist—battling baseball's, and society's, bigotry. But the truth is that it was a political victory brought about by a social protest movement. As an activist himself, Robinson would likely have been disappointed by a film that ignored the centrality of the broader civil rights struggle.
That story has been told in two outstanding books, Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment (1983) and Chris Lamb's Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (2012). As they recount, Rickey's plan came after more than a decade of effort by black and left-wing journalists and activists to desegregate the national pastime. Beginning in the 1930s, the Negro press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. It was part of a broader movement to eliminate discrimination in housing, jobs, and other sectors of society. It included protests against segregation within the military, mobilizing for a federal anti-lynching law, marches to open up defense jobs to blacks during World War II, and boycotts against stores that refused to hire African Americans under the banner "don't shop where you can't work." The movement accelerated after the war, when returning black veterans expected that America would open up opportunities for African Americans.
Robinson broke into baseball when America was a deeply segregated nation. In 1946, at least six African Americans were lynched in the South. Restrictive covenants were still legal, barring blacks (and Jews) from buying homes in many neighborhoods—not just in the South. Only a handful of blacks were enrolled in the nation's predominantly white colleges and universities. There were only two blacks in Congress. No big city had a black mayor.
Martin Luther King Jr. once told Dodgers star Don Newcombe, another former Negro Leaguer, "You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job."
It is difficult today to summon the excitement that greeted Robinson's achievement. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism—including verbal and physical abuse on the field and in hotels, restaurants, trains, and elsewhere—drew public attention to the issue, stirred the consciences of many white Americans, and gave black Americans a tremendous boost of pride and self-confidence. Martin Luther King Jr. once told Dodgers star Don Newcombe, another former Negro Leaguer, "You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job."
Robinson, who spent his entire major league career (1947 to 1956) with the Dodgers, was voted Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, when he won the National League batting title with a .342 batting average. An outstanding base runner and base stealer, with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
42 is the fourth Hollywood film about Robinson. All of them suffer from what might be called movement myopia. We may prefer our heroes to be rugged individualists, but the reality doesn't conform to the myth embedded in Hollywood's version of the Robinson story.
In The Jackie Robinson Story, released in 1950, Robinson played himself and the fabulous Ruby Dee portrayed his wife Rachel. Produced at the height of the Cold War, five years before the Montgomery bus boycott, the film celebrated Robinson's feat as evidence that America was a land of opportunity where anyone could succeed if he had the talent and will. The movie opens with the narrator saying, "This is a story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, it's a story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American."
In 1990 TNT released a made-for-TV movie, The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, starring Andre Braugher, which focused on Robinson's battles with racism as a soldier during World War II. In 1944, while assigned to a training camp at Fort Hood in segregated Texas, Robinson, a second lieutenant, refused to move to the back of an army bus when the white driver ordered him to do so, even though buses had been officially desegregated on military bases. He was court martialed for his insubordination, tried, acquitted, transferred to another military base, and honorably discharged four months later. By depicting Robinson as a rebellious figure who chafed at the blatant racism he faced, the film foreshadows the traits he would have to initially suppress once he reached the majors.
HBO's The Soul of the Game, released in 1996, focused on the hopes and then the frustrations of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, the two greatest players in the Negro Leagues, whom Branch Rickey passed up to integrate the majors in favor of Robinson, played by Blair Underwood. Rickey had long wanted to hire black players, both for moral reasons and because he believed it would increase ticket sales among the growing number of African Americans moving to the big cities. He knew that if the experiment failed, the cause of baseball integration would be set back for many years. Rickey's scouts identified Robinson—who was playing for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs after leaving the army—as a potential barrier-breaker. Rickey could have chosen other Negro League players with greater talent or more name recognition, but he wanted someone who could be, in today's terms, a role model. Robinson was young, articulate and well educated. His mother moved the family from Georgia to Pasadena, California in 1920 when Robinson was 14 months ago. Pasadena was deeply segregated, but Robinson lived among and formed friendships with whites growing up there and while attending Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. He was UCLA's first four-sport athlete (football, basketball, track, and baseball), twice led the Pacific Coast League in scoring in basketball, won the NCAA broad jump championship, and was a football All-American. Rickey knew that Robinson had a hot temper and strong political views, but he calculated that Robinson could handle the emotional pressure while helping the Dodgers on the field. Robinson promised Rickey that, for at least his rookie year, he would not respond to the inevitable verbal barbs and even physical abuse he would face on a daily basis.
In 1997, America celebrated Robinson with a proliferation of conferences, museum exhibits, plays, and books. Major League Baseball retired Robinson's number—42—for all teams. President Bill Clinton appeared with Rachel Robinson at Shea Stadium to venerate her late husband.