Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Jackie Robinson Story for Modern Times

The Jackie Robinson story as told in modern days.

Almost immediately after the first trailer was shown, the boys wanted to go see "42 - The True Story of an American Legend."  The story of Jackie Robinson's entry into Major League Baseball (or as C calls it, the MLB) was intriguing to the boys.  They didn't quite understand why it was intriguing, they just knew that it was.  The questions were endless.  It was actually refreshing to hear the boys being so naive and asking questions like this.

Whenever I hear of a reboot of a historical event, I can't help but think of that urban Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes or "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter."  Ugh.  Even history tends to be a product of modern times, and I was afraid that the Jackie Robinson story was going to be a watered down, feel-good affair.  At the ripe old age of 12, I learned of Robinson's plight.  Not that I could ever understand it, but  I picked up his school-age appropriate biography to to a book report and learned of the hatred and abject prejudice he faced.  I didn't understand it then either.

It was with this as background that we went to see 42, the story of Jackie's first year in the Major Leagues in 1947.  I was apprehensive about what we were going to see.  Either it was going to be unrealistic cheese, or it was going to be a brutal indictment on American culture that many living people still remember.

My prized possession
Hingham, MA.  7pm.  It was not long that I realized it was going to be the latter.  The game was crude and ruthless back in the 1940's.  Forget that this was post war America.  This was pre-business America.  No one really thought about how to wring the most out of American sports, particularly baseball which was at its zenith in the post war baby boom.  People would sacrifice making money for personal vendettas and personal causes.  It's astonishing to think that this was the case since people of my generation and the kids' generation is all about making the almighty buck.  Amidst this general ignorance (both to race and to dollar signs), Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey decided to call up Robinson to enhance the sales of tickets to Blacks who were coming to the game.  Now I'm sure he had some other type of notoriety (and his legacy) in mind when he decided to break the color barrier, but that was never developed in the movie.  Although he was a very complex man, he was somewhat one-dimensional in the movie.

The movie focuses on Robinson's career after he gets called up from the Negro Leagues in 1945.  Robinson started with Brooklyn's affiliate, Montreal, in 1946 after being signed by Rickey and immediately excelled in the Minor Leagues.  His charisma, skill and grit were too much for the Dodgers to ignore though, and the Dodgers called him to start at First Base in 1947.  Teammates hated him.  Opposing Managers and players hated him.  Most fans - both in Brooklyn and in opposing cities - hated him.  He was subject to segregation and outright calls for him to no play in certain cities close to the Mason-Dixon line.  Throughout all that, he still managed to play well and avoid leading the league in HBP (despite what the movie said).  I looked at the boys during these scenes and they were both transfixed.  Not bad.   

The story was inspirational, actually.  All the odds were against him and he still played well enough to win the 1947 Rookie of the Year Award and come in 5th place in the MVP voting (He would later win the MVP award in 1949).  Even though his manhood was challenged, he did not fight back.  He knew the score and wanted to make this a successful transition.  He would pave the way for other African American standout players like Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby.  This had to work, the movie was telling us.

And it did.  As we walked out, all three kids started asking me about my 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson that I obtained right after that book report that I did when I was 12.  My prized possession.  They wanted to learn more about that card and the player whose picture was found on that card.  Maybe they don't understand the historical significance, but they understand the significance of the man and the player. 

And that's the point, I think.

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