I’ve always marveled at the Civil Rights movement, as idealistic individuals on different sides of the color line worked together to overturn the laws of discrimination against African Americans. Some thought them crazy, others thought they were right, many more thought they would never find success. But many things changed then, and continued to change for years afterward. Those efforts culminated in the 1960s, and seem remarkable looking back. But peeling the layers back further, one can see the amazing efforts of individuals along the way, before the tidal wave of support rolled back the Jim Crow laws and real change occurred.
One of those stories is told in Warner Bros.’ film, 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, featuring Chadwick Boseman as the fiery infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and a nearly unrecognizable Harrison Ford as the forward-thinking manager of those Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Rickey famously challenges Robinson to be the “kind of player who doesn’t fight back” in a story that Pat Williams fleshes out in his book, How To Be Like Jackie Robinson (which tells even more stories from his life than we see in the film). But what happens here begs the question, what happens to Jackie Robinson without Branch Rickey? And how much of Rickey’s work was pragmatic and how much was forceful idealism?
42 makes us see Rickey as the idealist, as he asks one opposing manager how that dissenting manager will respond when God asks him in heaven, “why wouldn’t you play against Jackie Robinson?” For my dollar, as a Methodist pastor, I find myself impressed that the film includes the cut of Rickey’s statement that “I’m a Methodist, Jackie’s a Methodist, God’s a Methodist!” (We don’t get that much press time.) But what we can see of the Robinson-Rickey connection is one of two faithful men who recognized a problem (the ostracism of the black man from baseball, the “national pastime”) and did what they could to change it.
What we recognize in the film is that baseball doesn’t become a shining light in the civil rights movement without men who were willing to stand for something even while everyone else was falling out of the way. Whether it’s the onslaught of racism from the Phillies’ dugout in the person of Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) or the latent, careless, and cowardly racism of Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Whether it’s true or not that those particular men said or did those particular things, they represent two kinds of evil in the world: those who perpetrate evil because it makes them feel good and powerful, and those who perpetrate evil by standing aside and letting others suffer. It’s an example of sin by commission and omission, but neither one is actually “worse.”
Frankly, I didn’t expect much of 42 when I went to the theater to see it the first time; I figured that all of the good scenes had been in the trailers, that the unknown Boseman couldn’t be too convincing, that it had to be too watered down to be real. (I actually didn’t even know that Ford WAS Rickey, and after seeing it, it still requires squinting!) But I was impressed by the way the story was told, and the way that the baseball seemed real and not forced. I wondered if Robinson hadn’t had it harder than was actually depicted, but I was pleased that they’d make a movie that wasn’t the vanilla PG version we read our elementary school kids. The civil rights movement is a hard movement, a powerful thing that was soaked in the blood, sweat, and tears of those who died and struggled for those freedoms.
Watching it again, I remain impressed. Robinson’s tale is one everyone should know about, regardless of color or place of origin. But Rickey’s is as well. Maybe you won’t be a groundbreaking role model whose story is sung for years, and made into movies. But what if you’re the encourager, the supporter, the benefactor of someone else’s growth? What if you’re the one who steers someone to Alcoholic Anonymous, or introduces them to faith, or points out the things in them that you see that they can’t? What if you’re the one who needs to show them the potential God has for their lives?
Maybe you will be the next Robinson. Or the next Rickey. Or even the next Pee Wee Reese. You could do a lot worse.