Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Abraham, Jackie and Branch

In Baseball, Culture on April 11, 2013 at 7:56 pm

CDH’s Becky Koenig reviews the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, in theaters this Friday, and examines its connections with another recent film about breaking racial barriers.

Who broke baseball’s color barrier?

As any casual fan can tell you, the simple answer is Jackie Robinson. In 1947, the speedy infielder joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues. But the Robinson biopic 42, debuting tomorrow, calls into question just who truly was responsible for integrating America’s pastime.

Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) shares the screen with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the cigar-smoking Dodgers executive determined to get him on the field. Rickey got his start playing professional football and baseball, and then managed the St. Louis Browns before serving in World War I. He returned to St. Louis as a manager and executive for the Cardinals and developed the modern minor league system. The Dodgers hired Rickey away in the early 1940s. His star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame refers to him as “the greatest front-office strategist in baseball history,” who, by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, “simultaneously broke baseball’s color line and built the great Dodger teams of the 1940s and 1950s.”

This contrasts with the Robinson estate’s official website. The site asserts that “Jackie Robinson engineered the integration of professional sports in America by breaking the color barrier in baseball.” That’s the version most people have heard. In paying equal attention to the black ballplayer and the white team executive, 42 tries to resolve this tension, challenging audiences to reevaluate their assumptions about how the color barrier was broken.

At first glance, the film seems to depict Robinson as little more than a puppet who Rickey selects to serve his own purposes. In the first on-screen meeting between the two men, Robinson is outraged at Rickey’s suggestion that he not fight back against the racism hurled at him by both fans and players. Rickey explains he’s looking for a player with enough courage and discipline to keep playing ball despite the discrimination. Rickey doesn’t ask Robinson to forsake his agency, but to redirect it.

It could be a clever trick on Rickey’s part. When questioned by other executives about his motives, Rickey coolly maintains that he’s pursuing Robinson to improve the Dodgers’s roster and draw more African American fans to games. He quips to his incredulous staff that money is neither black nor white — it’s green. But Ford delivers these lines with a twinkle in his eye. Paired with the character’s religious language, the audience is meant to see that something grander than greed is at work.

That foreshadowing is fulfilled toward the film’s conclusion, when Robinson, injured at first base by an intentional spike, questions Rickey directly about why he’s putting them both through so much trouble. The executive finally admits to despising the discrimination that has tainted both the sport and the country, and says he’s trying to do his part to bring about justice. Underscored by a swelling orchestral soundtrack, Rickey thanks Robinson for allowing him to love baseball again.

The presentation of Rickey is reminiscent of the protagonist of that other recent cinematic examination of American race relations, Lincoln. (Breaking baseball’s color barrier isn’t quite as momentous as ending slavery, but because the complications of the latter led to the complications of the former, and because the sport has always served as a metaphor for the nation, comparing the film characters seems fitting.) Ford’s Rickey and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln both insist that calculated pragmatism drives their efforts to end inequality. But audiences are led to suspect — and want to believe — that those cynical rationales mask more noble intentions. Aware that many Americans would be unswayed by ethical appeals, the film’s Lincoln consciously forgoes moral rhetoric for shrewd politicking to get the job done. Likewise, rather than risk alienating Dodgers staff and fans by pointing out their prejudice, the film’s Rickey spins his decisions as business savvy, not activism.

Filmmakers hope to convince audiences that Rickey the character worked to break the color barrier because of his religious and moral convictions. And while it’s difficult to pin down just what motivates someone to challenge the status quo (just ask Lincoln scholars), there’s evidence to suggest that the real Rickey acted according to his personal sense of justice. He was nicknamed “the Mahatma,” after all. In 1956, Rickey spoke about what he called “the Robinson Experiment” to the 100 Percent Wrong Club, a group of Atlanta’s African American sportswriters. In the speech, Rickey shows clear commitment to racial equality and advocates for “the recognition of the moral stature of all men, that all humans are equal.” Describing how he sent scouts across North America to find a player with enough talent and discipline to handle the onslaught he knew was coming, Rickey says he was looking for “a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.” Believing balance to be essential to the plan’s success, Rickey talks about working with black leaders to temper responses from African American communities so white fans would not find them overly threatening. Lastly, Rickey recalls how he could do little more than hope that Dodgers players would accept their talented new teammate.

Evident throughout the text is Rickey’s love of baseball and hope that the sport would point the country toward racial equality. Barring players like Robinson, Rickey says, violates “all the elements of equality and citizenship, all the economic necessities connected with it” and “the whole form and conceptions of our Government.” Almost worse in Rickey’s opinion, such discrimination has the effect of “depriving some of the citizens of his own community, some wonderful boys, from seeing an exhibition of skill and technique, and the great, beautiful, graciousness of a slide, the like of which they could not see from any other man in this country.”

Rickey concludes with a lyrical wish that the universal beauty of baseball will transcend racism: “I know that America is … more interested in the grace of a man’s swing, in the dexterity of his cutting a base, and his speed afoot, in his scientific body control, in his excellence as a competitor on the field, — America, wide and broad … will become instantly more interested in those marvelous, beautiful qualities than they are in the pigmentation of a man’s skin, or indeed in the last syllable of his name.”

Of course, reality has more room for ambiguity than most movies — or speeches — provide. Ending slavery enabled Lincoln to save the union; signing Robinson helped Rickey secure the Dodgers’s prestige and financial success. Ultimately, neither man had to choose between his goals, and a cynic could accuse either of appropriating a cause and using African Americans to serve his own ends. But both got results difficult to dismiss. And maybe it’s just those inspiring French horn solos, but both seemed genuine in their desire for justice.

Who broke baseball’s color barrier, then, Jackie Robinson or Branch Rickey? 42 hopes to convince audiences that they both did, together. Rickey was brave enough to offer the opportunity, and Robinson was brave enough to accept it.

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