42: A tribute to integrating baseball falls short
25 April 2013
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland
One of baseball’s most iconic moments, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, an event whose impact resonated throughout America, is at the center of Brian Helgeland’s 42.
Helgeland, best known as the screenwriter of LA Confidential, Mystic River, Man on Fire and other films, focuses his work on the relationship between Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and famed Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). The film is set at a time when the Jim Crow apartheid system was still solidly in place in the southern states and racial prejudice was either encouraged or tolerated by many American institutions and much of its media and entertainment business.
The film begins in late 1945 when Rickey, portrayed superbly by Ford, announces to his subordinates his determination to integrate major league baseball. Told he will be breaking an unwritten code and become an outcast, Rickey responds, “So be it. New York is full of Negro baseball fans. Dollars are not black and white, they’re green, every dollar is green.”
Rickey decides that Robinson, a four-sport athlete at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who has played alongside whites, been an officer in the army and is presently batting .350 with the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro team, will become the first black ballplayer in the major leagues.
Upon meeting Robinson, and aware of the latter’s combative temper and willingness to fight back (while in the military, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus, but was eventually acquitted), Rickey insists that despite the abuse Robinson will inevitably be subjected to, “he wants a player that has the guts not to fight back.”
Robinson agrees, and in 1946 signs a contract with the Montreal Royals, a Dodger minor league team. The first half of the film details the racism that Robinson and his wife are subjected to in Florida during spring training. Throughout the film, Boseman effectively expresses the player’s restrained rage.
To assist Robinson during this difficult period, Rickey has Negro sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) travel with and mentor him in dealing with the press. Smith himself has long campaigned for baseball’s integration and, even though a prominent sports writer for the Negro press, is relegated to sit with a typewriter on his lap in the stands because he is barred from the press box.
Robinson survives spring training in 1946 and goes on to have a very productive year with Montreal, becoming one of the favorites of that city’s fans.
In the spring of 1947, Rickey attempts to avoid the overt racism that Robinson had been subjected to in Florida by holding the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Panama. To his dismay, however, several Dodgers express their resentment toward Robinson by signing a petition declaring they will refuse to play with him.
Rickey calls on Dodger manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) to put down this insurrection. “I don’t care if he is yellow or black, or has stripes like a zebra,” says Durocher. “If Robinson can help us win and everything I have seen says yes he can, then he is going to play on this ball club.” The one or two Dodgers who still resist are told by Rickey they will be traded.
Robinson makes the team and on opening day, April 15, 1947, in Brooklyn, becomes the first player since 1880 to break the major league baseball color line. More than half the 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field in attendance are black.
The second half of 42 follows Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers. It depicts various incidents such as the racist diatribe Robinson is subjected to during a game by Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman (Hamish Linklater). Also shown is a game in Cincinnati when Dodger captain and southerner Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson, in a gesture of support that silences a taunting crowd. This famous moment is depicted in a bronze sculpture unveiled at MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, in 2005.
Robinson goes on to become the major league rookie of the year, leading the Dodgers to the World Series in 1947, and winning over his teammates and fans everywhere by his excellence on the field.
Robinson went on to have a Hall of Fame career, and when he retired at the end of 1956—after helping to bring Brooklyn its first World Series victory in 1955—all but three teams had integrated. (In 1959, the Boston Red Sox, against the wishes of owner Tom Yawkey, became the last team to sign African American players.) Robinson died in 1972.
On April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game, major league baseball officially retired his jersey, number 42. The only exception to this policy occurs on April 15 each year, when all major league players wear number 42 in tribute.
Near the end of Helgeland’s film, Robinson presses Rickey as to why he has submitted himself to what has been a difficult ordeal, not only for the first African-American player, but also for the Dodgers’ executive. In reply, Rickey relates the story of how when he was in college, the best player on his team was a Negro named Charlie Thomas, who was ultimately broken by racism. “There was something unfair about the heart of the game I loved and I ignored it. But a time came when I could no longer do that. You let me love baseball again. Thank you.”
Helgeland makes an effort to bring this intense and moving moment, which continues to exercise an impact on anyone concerned about social progress, to life. The weakness of 42, however, is its decision to portray the actions and courage of Robinson and to a lesser extent Rickey simply as attributes of exceptional individuals, largely outside of history.