By Charity Bishop
I am not “into” baseball or any other sport, but 42 is one of my favorite movies, because of the powerful way it shows how two men’s courage and moral fortitude broke the color barrier in baseball. Though they are not “friends” in the movie, Rickey’s stalwart support, moral strength, and sheer courage gives the much-abused Jackie Robinson the motivation to keep fighting for a “greater cause.”
It’s the mid-1940s, when black soldiers returned home after serving proudly in WWII to find racial segregation still a major problem “at home.” Baseball confines them to all-black teams and the Minor Leagues, but Branch Rickey has a different vision in mind for his Brooklyn Dodgers. He wants to bring the first black player onto the field, in his currently all-white team, as a segue way into flooding the Major Leagues with talented ball players of all races.
Everyone tells him he is crazy, but he persists, arguing that these boys have passion, skill, and “just want to play ball.” He wants a victorious team but as the story unfolds, we learn his true motivation stems from seeing a “talented black ball player brought low by the color of his skin” in his youth, and “I did not do enough to help him.” He swore one day to atone for that.
Enter Jackie Robinson, whom Rickey “feels” is right for it, even though he has a history of disputes over racial segregation. When he tells Jackie that he must keep his temper on the field, no matter what the racist ball players or fans scream at him, Jackie asks him, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
“No,” Rickey answers, “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” The high standard he expects of Jackie helps the young, passionate, angry ball player to keep his temper on the field, even through a horrific onslaught of racial slurs and vitriolic abuse from an opposing team’s manager. In a hard scene to watch, Jackie endures, then storms down into the hallway behind the dugout, and breaks his bat to smithereens on the cement wall. He screams. He cries. He says so help him God, the next white man who “opens his mouth, I will break his… teeth!”
Ridley listens. He cares. But he tells him to get back out there and play. To steal bases. That what he is fighting for is bigger than himself. When an opposing player viciously sticks his cleats in Jackie’s leg, Ridley visits him as he’s getting stitched up. He tells him what he’s doing is important, and the other day, he saw a little white boy pretending to be Jackie “… dusting his hands with sand, just like you do. Imagine that. A little white boy pretending to be a black man.”
Both men show tremendous courage and fortitude. Jackie, however, bears most of the abuse. He is out in front, and cannot hide the color of his skin. But Ridley has his back in the office, cajoling, threatening, collecting letters of abuse, and giving them over to the FBI. When Jackie asks him if he knows what it is like to endure this, Rickey flat out says no, he can’t. He can’t imagine it.
But Jackie isn’t alone. And he knows it. He has Ridley. One by one, his teammates get sick of seeing him “take it” and “figure out who they are” by standing up for him. Some decide they don’t want to transfer. Another puts his arm around him, in front of a booing white crowd in his racist hometown. Another threatens to “shut the mouth” of a screaming onlooker. Still another one catches him, preventing him from taking a terrible fall and enabling him to catch a ball.
Two things stand out to me, about this film and the true story behind it. All it takes is for one or two people, doing the right thing, to cause others to find the courage to do the same. If Rickey had not taken a bold, risky move in “ending racism here at home,” Jackie would never have gotten to play in the Major Leagues or ended racial segregation in baseball. If Jackie hadn’t had the incredible moral integrity required not to fight back, or give up under an onslaught of hatred and abuse, it could have taken decades for other black men to enter the Major Leagues.
The second thing is almost a throwaway in the story, but a very real truth: that the faith of these two men spurred on their actions. At one point, Rickey deadpans, “[Jackie] is a Methodist. I am a Methodist. God is a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.” But, at every turn, we sense the “moral rightness” of what he is doing. And in real life, Jackie Robinson “carried his cross,” burdened with a sense of purpose. He emulated Jesus, turned the other cheek (a hard thing to do; it takes more courage to submit and show love than to fight), and “lived a sermon out there [on the baseball field].” His faith enabled him to endure what most of us cannot imagine, and forever changed history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.