Rating: Assume Martin Luther King could run, steal second and hit homers, and you have Jackie Robinson.
Watching Brian Helgeland’s 42 is like taking a trip in a time machine. Growing up in Southern Indiana, I blindly learned to love baseball without fully understanding its past.
I quickly learned. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I embraced Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League. In 1954, I won a national Coca-Cola contest and was able to take my Dad to Cleveland to watch a World Series game between the Indians and the New York Giants. More to the point, I was able to watch Willie Mays play shortly after his legendary over-the-shoulder catch in center field off a fly ball hit by Vic Wertz.
Equally important, I attended a St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Fantasy Camp for one week in 1991 where I was fortunate enough to have Bob Gibson as my team manager. Listening to both him and Curt Flood discuss their careers, they had not forgotten the segregation that forced them to live apart from their white teammates in the 1950’s.
The best thing about 42 is the ability to become a personal part of Robinson’s quest to be simply treated as an equal. Chadwick Boseman literally brings Jackie back to life both on and off the baseball diamond. In the end, his courage was a product of the great advice he got from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team executive, Branch Rickey, when he was told to have the strength to turn the other cheek.
The incredible abuse that Robinson had to tolerate was leveled both on and off the field. The reluctance of his own teammates to initially accept him paled in comparison to the vicious diatribes leveled by players like Cleveland Indians’ manager Ben Chapman. It is telling that you hear the “N word” almost as frequently as in Tarentino’s Django Unchained.
What 42 teaches us is that we can’t simply sing the praises of our country if we ignore our profound historical weaknesses. This occurred during our lifetime, and there is a reason why Robinson’s number, 42, is the only number retired by baseball to this day.
I should also note a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford, here playing Mr. Rickey. Rickey had the courage to fight racial prejudice head-on, and the Dodgers added legendary players Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe in subsequent years. It has been a long time since Harrison Ford was remotely this good, and he deserves to be remembered at Oscar time.
Finally, it goes without saying that most Americans would have denied the presence of racial prejudice at the time Robinson joined the Dodgers. It makes you wonder just how alive this racial venom is today when a Robinson counterpart known as Barack Obama became the first African-American President.
Like Jackie Robinson, President Obama has consistently turned the other cheek no matter how hostile the criticism. Tragically, racial hatred didn’t die overnight in this country, and it remains frightening to see us dodge that reality.