Why Jackie Still Matters

April 11, 2013

Before Rosa Parks, Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Montgomery bus boycott; before black power and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, there was Jackie Robinson.

It’s hard to imagine a time when sports, like the rest of American life, were segregated. For all of the great Hall of Famers who dominated baseball prior to World War II, there were many others who were excluded from the major leagues because of their skin color.

The man who changed all of that, Jackie Robinson, was not the best player in the old Negro Leagues – the all-black version of major league baseball -- in 1945. But he was an extraordinary athlete and a man of impeccable character and fortitude. When he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, he set out on a journey that would make history.

He broke in with the Dodgers the following year, 1947, as a first baseman, although he later moved to second base. His rookie season was unlike any other in baseball history. Ever time he stepped onto the field, let alone got a hit or stole a base, he challenged the status quo in a highly visible, highly public manner.

The much-anticipated movie “42,” which stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Nichole Beharie as his wife, Rachael, will bring even more than usual attention to the annual celebration of Robinson’s major league debut on April 15. On that day, as has become tradition, every player in every major league ballpark will wear Robinson’s uniform number, 42. That number has been retired from use since 1997 – today, throughout all of baseball, only Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera wears 42, because he had the number in ’97 and was allowed to keep it. But when he retires later this year, nobody in baseball will wear Robinson’s number.

When I learned that Hollywood was making a film about Robinson, I was more than a little anxious about the result. Having been frustrated almost every time the movies tackled a historical subject, I worried about what liberties would be taken with one of the most important moments in American history.

Yes, a movie can spark interest in a historic topic, such as last year’s “Lincoln” biopic. But it can also lead to tremendous misconceptions about history. It is hard for a scholarly book or an academic lecture to overcome the spectacle (and historical liberties) of a big budget film. Most people, certainly most of my students, believe that the legends of “Braveheart” or “Gladiator” or “The Patriot” are more accurate than what they hear from their history teachers.

Jackie Robinson’s story should make for a captivating movie. It contains all of the essential elements of a powerful drama: heroes and villains, dramatic confrontations, a profound moral dimension. It certainly does not need any additional dramatizing. The early reviews of the movie, I’m pleased to report, have been positive. Rachel Robinson, whom I had the honor of meeting in 1996 at my first history conference, which was on the integration of baseball, has said she enjoyed the movie. She said it captured the spirit and the emotion of their lives in that trying time.

The film even earned the White House’s seal of approval, as the President and First Lady hosted a special screening before it was released nationwide. But it is also clear that the movie considers only parts of the story.

The full account of baseball’s integration is exceedingly complex. Although the integration of baseball was a transformational moment for the nation, it devastated the Negro
Leagues. In just a few years, what had been the most successful black owned and operated business in the country was gone. Fewer people of color made their living in baseball in 1960 than in 1946.

So while we rightfully celebrate the integration of baseball – and with it the integration of America -- we also need to be aware of the unintended consequences of integration.

One thing is certain: No matter how skillful the production may be, it pales in comparison to the actual events in the spring of 1947.