With the much anticipated release of ’42: The Jackie Robinson Story’ and Major League Baseball’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson next Monday, you have likely noticed the deluge of media that has shined a deserved spotlight on the iconic man and Hall of Famer once again. For those of us born long after his final at-bat, this weekend is a reminder of why he matters beyond his career .311 batting average. For those who lived the trials and tribulations with him, there’s a curiosity on how a legacy is re-told on the silver screen to generations who can’t fathom sports before “the gentlemen’s agreement”.
Now, of course, there are going to be some well-founded fears about what will not be shown in the film. (Offered here without comment, The Nation’s Dave Zirin revealed five of his last week). Whether it’s Hollywood ‘whitewashing’ his story, the annual discussion of the decline of black players in MLB today, or the baseball historians’ demand for authenticity, ‘42’ serves as much more than the biggest release of this weekend.
The honest, but unfortunate truth is that a film can never tell the full story of a person’s life, no matter how impactful it was. It can’t completely surmise every thought, decision and emotion in a way that pleases and educates every moviegoer because we are limited by time and attention spans.
It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
Much of the story that we may not see has to do with the others that shaped his legacy, especially those who reluctantly or unknowingly did so. Yes, it’s true that Robinson wasn’t the best player Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley gazed their sights on. In fact, various members of the white Majors cruelly flirted with better talents before breaking their spirits. When this comes up in many Robinson-focused reflections, men like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell are almost spoken of like they are bit players to his legend. Save for some biographies, a handful of films like “Soul of the Game”, and hand-me-down stories from our elders, we don’t know or appreciate these men like we should.
This was crystallized when reading Larry Tye’s acclaimed Satchel Paige biography, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. When discussing Paige’s years with the Kansas City Monarchs, Tye re-paints the tensions raised with the ascension of Robinson. As staunch defenders of the color barrier wanted to make the inevitable difficult for the future Brooklyn Dodger, Negro Leaguers who thought they were more deserving of being The One resented him because he didn’t come up in the game – and society – in the arduous manner as they did. “Rather than show deference to the old hands that had,” Tye wrote, “Jackie showed disdain. He complained about the seedy hotels. He objected to puny paychecks and uneven umpiring.” That shouldn’t read as a slight on him by any means, but no matter how flawed the organization of blackball was, it was one the cash cow Paige helped catapult to both black AND white America. Simply put, Robinson’s demeanor towards the Negro Leagues “was like spitting on Satchel’s baby.”
However understandable the strain was between the younger Robinson and the elder Negro Leaguers, there was a prescience that Paige had through the early years of baseball’s re-integration, even if the pain of not being first stayed with him until his death. From Tye:
“He was savvy enough to know that Americans have room for just one hero at a time. If Jackie became the knight who slew Jim Crow, the roles of the real pioneers would be lost. Satchel felt sorry for Fleetwood Walker, Rube Foster, and Josh Gibson – and sorrier still for himself. He worried that he would be remembered as a Stepin Fetchit, or worse, an Uncle Tom. Satchel had not gone to war over every racial slight, but he had stood up. He refused to play in a town unless it supplied lodging and food to him and his teammates, a defiance for which young civil rights workers would get arrested and lionized a generation later. Only a player of his stature and grace could manage that without getting his skull cracked open. It was painful, after all those years of hearing “if you were white,” to be told now “if you were only younger.”
Of course, Paige would write his own unique chapter in the early years of breaking the barrier when joining the Majors in 1948. The oldest ‘rookie’ in Major League Baseball history at, of all ages, 42; he signed with the Cleveland Indians a year after Bill Veeck made Larry Doby the first player to break the barrier in the American League.
There are many, regardless of race or generation, who believe that Robinson and all those plucked from the Negro Leagues to break the barrier endured all the trials and tribulations for history. Their experiences were unique, bold, and difficult in ways that few of us can truly comprehend. Sports, and our modern society evolved because of them. Yet, whether you see the new film, read his autobiography or even watch previous portrayals of his life, understand that Jackie Robinson was the next step in sporting and social progression.
Learn about any and every one who was first. Satchel, Fleetwood, Buck, Josh and Rube. Lou Castro. Joe Gans and Jack Johnson. Willie O’Ree and Larry Kwong. Wataru Misaka, Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Fritz Pollard, Joe Lillard, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington.
Learn that 42 was – and still is – far more than one man, but the collective plight and blessing of many who played thousands upon thousands of innings against Jim Crow.