Monday, April 22, 2013

The Emancipators: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the Politics of 42

Chris Beneke

In a famous photograph of baseball star Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, the African American legend prepares to sign his 1948 contract. As he does so, the viewer of this staged scene can make out a small photo hung above Rickey’s head at top right. From that modest rectangular frame, a young, beardless Abraham Lincoln gazes upon the scene.*

Three years earlier, Robinson met Rickey under that same gaze and the two men discussed, among many other things, their shared Christian devotion. During this tense  and seemingly interminable meeting that would lead to the end of baseball’s longstanding prohibition on black players, Rickey had Robinson read a line from Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ: “But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Robinson agreed to turn the other cheek and in April 1947, he joined the Dodgers as the first African American major leaguer in more than half a century. 

There’s no getting around the fact that the latest retelling of Robinson’s epic first season, Brian Helgeland’s film 42, succumbs to Hollywood sentimentality. It’s certainly not a great film, arguably not a good film, and definitely not a subtle one. It aims at a high-level of verisimilitude and mostly achieves it, but too often at the expense of dramatic effect and historical significance. The awkward conflation of events (Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth appears to apparate, Harry Potter-style, into a Missouri gas station where Robinson has just negotiated his way into a segregated bathroom) and a syrupy musical backdrop (including an Olympian trumpet fanfare to accompany one of Robinson’s exultant trots to home plate) will surely disappoint viewers who were lured by the gritty, thumping Jay-Z-scored trailer.
Yet critics like the perpetually outraged Dave Zirin who see here nothing more here than a pious melodrama that idolizes a cigar-chomping, penurious white man (played with gruff, endearing self-righteousness by Harrison Ford) and an overly deferential, assimilating black man (played arrestingly by a stoic Chadwick Boseman), will miss something themselves.

Among other things, they will miss the fact that the script for the enterprise of baseball integration was originally conceived by Rickey and originally dramatized by Robinson. The plan this pair executed was both conspicuously Lincolnian and unapologetically Christian. It required Rickey’s pragmatic liberal management, which proceeded in measured strides, and the transcendent suffering of Robinson, who sacrificed for the larger good of racial redemption. Rickey tempered expectations while moving ahead resolutely, shaping an environment that allowed Robinson enough space to develop as a player without depriving white fans and players of the time they needed to adapt as human beings. Robinson endured uncomplainingly and then succeeded spectacularly in a heroic combination of personal restraint and athletic brilliance.

These unmistakable Lincolnian and Christian themes may elude progressive critics who desperately want to see broad-based social movements in action against institutionalized racism. Eric Foner’s influential critique of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln—that it ignores the work done “at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of [African Americans] themselves to acquire freedom”—has already been leveled against 42. It is demonstrably true that baseball integration was the product of larger forces which Rickey capitalized upon. And 42 does elide the political pressures that were mounting in Harlem and Washington D.C., while slighting the work of civil rights activists such as Wendell Smith.**

But 42’s protagonists, Robinson and Rickey, really did matter. The defining historical role they played may be gauged by remembering that Rickey originally considered signing a number of other exceptional African-American ball players, several of whom possessed baseball potential surpassing Robinson’s. But Rickey saw something else in Robinson that exceeded his ability to play baseball, something intimately related to Robinson’s Methodist faith. Helgelend briefly evokes that other thing when he has Ford utter one of the film’s better lines, expressed with Lincolnesque economy and wit: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.” A teetotaler who neither smoked nor womanized, with a well-established commitment to racial justice and Christianity, Robinson was precisely the person Rickey wanted for the job. The fact that he had Hall-of-Fame baseball talent also helped. After all, Rickey, the dogged pragmatist, intended to win on the ball diamond as well as in the contemporary moral universe.
Poster from the 1950 Jackie Robinson Story. See full film here.

Robinson repaid Rickey’s faith with humble Christian expressions and herculean acts of self-control. The things Robinson refrained from saying during his witheringly difficult rookie season often made the difference. He would eventually have plenty to say about his experiences and about civil rights, but in these early years he deployed his words carefully, sticking to Rickey’s script and gaining tens of thousands of admirers in the process. After his first, harrowing game in the majors, Robinson told an inquiring reporter that he’d thanked God the night before, adding that he belonged to a Methodist church in Pasadena and had taught Sunday school. “[T]hey gave me the bad little boys,” Robinson recalled, “and I liked it.” Robinson also repaid Rickey’s Lincolnian aspirations by suggesting in his autobiography that while Rickey’s hero, “Mr. Lincoln,” had ended the institution of slavery, that institution had survived into the twentieth century in the form of segregation and discrimination. With Robinson’s entry into major league baseball, the second emancipation commenced.

Like Lincoln in the nineteenth century, Rickey and Robinson drew on untapped reservoirs of decency and inchoate conceptions of fair play among their fellow Americans. They demonstrated, more than a decade before Martin Luther King, Jr., that the perpetrators of injustice in a democracy may be worn down by dignified and well-publicized suffering. 

If 42 neglects the bigger picture, if it privileges a couple of extraordinary individuals at the expense of the collective movements that enabled them to do their work, it also reminds us of the good that morally grounded pragmatists can accomplish.


* The signing took place on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. In another staged photo, only Lincoln’s portrait hangs above Rickey, the picture of Rickey’s daughters and manager Leo Durocher having been removed, though you can still see the nail that may have held Durocher’s photo. Rickey, who claimed to have read every biography of Lincoln, was sometimes called the “Second Great Emancipator.” 
** Smith, played by Andre Holland has a large supporting role in the film, but we don’t see the behind-the-scenes campaign for desegregation in which he had been engaged for several years. 


Eric B. Schultz said...

Thanks, Chris. Excellent essay. Time to see the movie!

I've seen that picture a dozen times and never noticed Lincoln.

As for "42". . .I don't remember people criticizing Spielberg's stunning "Schindler's List" because it told only Oskar Schindler's story and not the vastly more complex, heartbreaking story of the Jews in WWII. Conversely, I DO remember people criticizing Ken Burns' "Jazz" and "Baseball" tour de forces because, even after 8 or 10 episodes, he still hadn't "hit their issues" squarely enough. It's almost a no-win.

If "42" tries to be accurate (tho melodramatic) and encourages people to explore the issue further, it will have been a success. Those of us in Boston might start with the so-called "Curse of the Bambino," which turned out to be an entirely different kind of curse. So, here's to Jackie Robinson--and a tip of the hat to Pumpsie Green as well!

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Eric! Yes, cheers to Pumpsie and Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays. And yes, imagine Boston with Robinson batting ahead of Williams...

I was honestly disappointed by the film. But my baseball-loving 9 year-old though it was "awesome."

The critics have a point, it's just--as you suggest--that you can only do so much with a 2 hr. movie which you expect millions of people to sit and watch.

Ken Owen said...

I expected to be disappointed by the film, but actually thought that it was pretty good. Not great, but a well-told story that didn't take too many historical liberties. (Sure, the conflation of events was irritating at times, but it wasn't substantially untrue in any analytical sense).

There were some things I wish had been included:
1) The failed tryout at Boston.

2) Bill Veeck's attempt to buy the Phillies and fill the roster with players from the Negro Leagues. (Though I'm not sure how easily this could have been crammed into 2 hours!)

3) Some recognition of the fact that Montreal was not an American city and thus had some degree of easing the transition into organized baseball.

4) A sense that Rickey was also promoting other African-American stars in his minor league teams. My favorite story in Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment is that one about Roy Campanella opening up a chicken farm because of all the home runs he hits!

But I guess all of those cut across the larger points a bit too much.

Dan Mandell said...

I happened to see "42" Saturday with the family, and think it made its point within the context of baseball in post-WWII U.S. fairly well. I wondered a bit about the failure to mention post-Holocaust and Cold War concerns, but see those as relatively minor issues.

But Eric, Spielberg's "Schindler's List" did and continues to get criticism for the very reason you mention. The reviewer in the "New York Review of Books" called it an "aesthetic and moral failure" (April 21, 1994). See also,_Schindlers_List.pdf for a good overview of the responses. And more recently, "Tablet" magazine rated it at the bottom of the 100 greatest Jewish films of all time--and put it on the list only because it had such a high public profile.

Bland Whitley said...

As a lifelong Dodger fan, who grew up with a picture of Robinson on his wall, I've been both excited and wary of "42." Thanks, Chris, for putting its cinematic flaws in perspective. It seems to me that lately historians have done themselves few favors in their rush to criticize movies. Sure, we'd all like to see film catch up to some of the advances of social and cultural history, but too much of the critiques, as in the case of "Lincoln," come off as carping and wish-fulfillment (i.e. "I wish the filmmakers had chosen a different but related subject to explore these historical themes"). Let's face it--individualized stories are bound to be more cinematic. Perhaps the best to be hoped for is historical thoughtfulness and rigor within that scope.

hcr said...

Great piece, Chris.

It would be hard to find anyone who has less interest in this movie than me, but I do like what you point out: that ideas-- about freedom, religion, politics, and so on-- matter in history. Can't believe I never knew the whole Methodist angle of this, and yet I'm sure it was crucial. Certainly, it mattered!

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Not sure I should have read this before Tommy drags me off to see 42 (we're extra excited because of the Chattanooga-filming connection...). But thanks to the way you tied the issues in this film to the larger historiographical themes, I can seem like one of those "cool" professors who make baseball references to illustrate their points. And now I'll feel unapologetic about seeing the movie...

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks gang! Very nice to have such sharp-eyed and insightful readers, even if some of them -- inexplicably -- are not baseball fans.

Jeff Vanke said...

Nice, Chris. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can only reference your review. The term "Christian" as explanatory seems to me very vague, whereas more precise qualifiers could be used. As an American Protestant for a certain degree of social gospel, I think I get your meaning, including but not limited to the point about turning the other cheek.

But not all Christians of 1947 did. Nor do Christians in 2013 agree on which is the proper Christian position on the big social-cultural policy debates of our time. Etc.

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Jeff. I do mean "Christian" in a pretty generic sense. Of course, lots of Christians were opposed to integration at the time (and a disproportionate number of non-Christians, especially Jews, for it). But I do think that Robinson and Rickey did manage to tap into a shared religious sensibility that was discernibly Christian.

Christopher said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, Chris. I still haven't seen the film (I plan on going to a showing tomorrow evening), but look forward to it.