A film with a number as a title, especially a film about a baseball player who most young people probably have never heard of, must be a hard sell. Nonetheless, 42 is an exciting tale of American cultural heroism placed in an accurate historical context and I recommend it to people of all ages. It re-creates the immediate post-World War II era in thrilling detail, even if it also tends to make that world physically brighter and shinier than it was. The most important thing it reveals is how disgusting and deep-rooted racial prejudice was in those days and how it took a special kind of American virtue--one explicitly Christian--to extirpate it. A dozen years before the first freedom marches in the South, there was Jackie Robinson. And there was Branch Rickey, principled and determined president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to call him forth.
Jackie Robinson's name was known to any young person of my own generation. I remember seeing a film about him--and starring him--called The Jackie Robinson Story. That movie came out in 1950, less than three years after Robinson batted his way onto the scene as the first "Negro" player in the major leagues. Even then it was obvious that his advent marked a major development. In 1947 he was the second most popular American, after Bing Crosby.
42 is was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Jackie Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, a charismatic young actor who really does look like Robinson and conveys his charm. Harrison Ford is winning as the sometimes bombastic, always effective Branch Rickey--a man on camera, as in Rickey's life, who disguises his virtue with a business rationale. Suffice here that 42 is somewhat predictable in its trajectory of ambition and skill overcoming adversity. Still, at a gathering of some 125 King County Republicans in Bellevue, Washington last night it hit an emotional home run.
Some backstory. In 1946 when Branch Rickey decided to recruit an African-American for the Dodgers--to change baseball by breaking the color line--the Republicans swept back into control of Congress for the first time in 16 years. Out went the Dixiecrat Congressional Committee chairmen, all of whom of course were segregationists. The Republicans were the party of freedom. In New York, Gov. Tom Dewey was the author of the nation's first state law banning discrimination in employment.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson (named for Theodore, not Franklin) became a Republican advocate and spokesman. He remained so through several presidential elections until 1964. In that year the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater, who supported the "states rights" position of Southern segregationists. His position on that issue was not that of the Republicans in the Senate or House, however, who continued to promote civil rights legislation and voted overwhelmingly (more than the Democrats in Congress) for the civil rights laws of the next few years. Much of this reality is forgotten or ignored by most historians.
Jackie Robinson was took part in the March on Washington in 1963. By then he had retired from baseball and was Vice President of the coffee company, Chock full o' Nuts. He was a personal friend and supporter of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. He helped start a black-owned bank in Harlem and a construction company for low income housing. He spoke against drug abuse and Soviet oppression.
My friend and Discovery Institute colleague (former Congressman and ambassador) John Miller, who also is a true expert on baseball history and met Jackie Robinson on a couple of occasions, recalls:
"When Malcom X was preaching black power and reverse racism in the sixties and challenging any black establishment leader favoring integration to come up to Harlem and debate him in front of an angry crowd of Malcom supporters, only one accepted the challenge: Jackie Robinson."
Robinson suffered from diabetes and died at age 53 in 1972. Sad for black voters, the civil rights movement morphed into a political power organ that is allergic to conservatives in the black community. Meanwhile, the GOP, though for years it has been open to black candidates, has not put its fund raising muscle behind development of a black constituency. At any given stage, it seems the money and time is better spent elsewhere.
That is the political missed opportunity represented, among others, by Jackie Robinson. But regardless of party the significance of his example remains.