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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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