My wife Rhonda and I went to see “42” today, an excellent retelling of the important story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is gratifying to know that this film will serve, from now on, to educate people of all ages about the how Jackie Robinson caused a sea-change in American culture.
Over 20 years ago, after years of hearing about Jackie Robinson’s story, Rhonda and I felt that it was our responsibility to be sure that our son Adam (now 27), a sports fan from early on, would know this story as well. Peter Golenbock’s book, Teammates, effectively portrayed for children an incident that offered one of the most poignant moments in “42.” The Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field early in 1947, Robinson’s rookie year. As the crowd (which reportedly included some of Reese’s family from Kentucky) yelled hateful epithets at Robinson, Pee Wee Reese ran across the infield to put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder, to show solidarity in a way that silenced the crowd’s hatred. In November of 2005, a statue of this scene was unveiled outside MCU Park in Brooklyn, home of the New York Mets’ minor league affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones.
This image of Reese and Robinson standing together captures the spirit of “42.” In the film, Branch Rickey, played so well by Harrison Ford, noted that the Bible says that we should “love our neighbors as ourselves” and that it was time for that rule to apply to baseball (and other arenas of life, by extension). As we saw the movie today, I was mindful of the fact that the Torah reading in synagogues and Temple throughout the world for this coming week includes Leviticus Chapter 19, the source of the commandment cited by Rickey. The film made its debut in theaters just several days after Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed this past Sunday night/Monday. One reference to anti-Semitism in the film related to the treatment of Hank Greenberg. Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, inaccurately claimed that Greenberg took the name-calling in stride in order to justify his verbal abuse of Robinson from the opposing dugout. In fact, Greenberg approached the prejudice he faced in the same way that Robinson did, having the courage not to react or respond.
It is ironic that, several days before “42” was released this weekend, it was reported in local news that the first base umpire serving at a high school baseball game between Gadsden High School and Alamogordo High School here in New Mexico threatened to eject any player who spoke Spanish during the game. The players were doing nothing wrong, and the home-plate umpire did tell his colleague that he had no authority to carry out his threat. However, some of the comments from readers of an online story about this incident were hateful, disrespectful and narrow-minded, including expressions that bore an uncanny resemblance to the prejudice that Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and others in other walks of life had to endure by holding their head high and not stooping to the level of the name-calling being thrust upon them.
“42” reminds us how far we have come in treating all people with dignity and respect and in acknowledging the strength of our diversity. It also illustrates that we still have a distance to go when echoes of the racism and hatred portrayed in the movie are all too easy to find in some corners of our society. The film portrayed Branch Rickey, in several instances, declaring that God would accept no excuses for our prejudice. The commandments in Leviticus 19 that direct us to love our all people as ourselves can still guide us today as we seek to strengthen the moral foundation of our nation and as we continue to engender mutual understanding – and peace - throughout the world.