Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson in Brian Hegeland’s new film about the baseball legend, 42. (Photo credit: ABCnews.com)
Athletics unifies Americans in a way that few activities do. With the exceptions of church attendance, shopping, and voting, it is perhaps the most visible thread of a shared culture within our country. At the same time, athletics is occasionally a forum that settles events whose origins arise elsewhere. Brian Helgeland’s 42 narrates the story of how Jackie and Rachel Robinson, Wendell Smith, and Branch Rickey – to name a few prominent characters in a larger story – confronted racism in the United States by addressing segregation within America’s favorite pastime, baseball. The biopic, which grossed $27.4 million during the weekend, opening in the number slot. Moreover, the cast delivers earnest performances: Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson; Nicole Beharie, Rachel Robinson; and Harrison Ford, Branch Rickey. Given its emotional resonance and the intrinsic pull of its story, 42 delivers an adequate but underwhelming version of Robinson’s story.
The film’s primary territory extends from 1945 to 1947, covering Robinson’s stint with the Montreal Royals in 1946 and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season, which commenced with his Major League Baseball debut on April 15th, 1947. Of particular note, 42 highlights the story of Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh Courier journalist who chronicles the pioneering Major League Baseball debut of Robinson. The film’s accent on the Robinson-Smith relationships highlights the fact that the emergence of Jackie Robinson is coterminous with the ascent of black sports journalists. The legend of Hank Aaron, for instance, is connected to the work of the black sports journalists. The movie, moreover, rightly implies that Robinson’s pioneering career cleared the pathway for future African-American players.
The film deserves credit for painting a relatively nuanced picture of racism in the 1940’s. The most effective scenes cover the polarities of racial anxiety and racial acceptance: one of the Robinson’s teammates refuses to continue his shower when Robinson enters the locker room; another teammate is initially afraid to be seen with Robinson, but eventually embraces the opportunity to play alongside him as a show of support for integration within baseball.
42 avoids exploring what Robinson’s legacy means for diversity within the MLB (particularly at the executive level) and the role of contemporary black athletes within our society. Additionally, by portraying wholly idealized versions of Robinson and Rickey, the film misses an opportunity to help audiences see how the aforementioned men are lauded for generally choosing virtue over vice – rather than being construed as transcendent racial heroes. Nevertheless, 42 is a feel good movie that performs the essential role of a biopic – its honors the life of its subject. It’s also family-friendly entertainment that displays an intact black marriage in a cinematic landscape that is largely devoid of those elements. Take your friends and loved ones to see the film and let us know what you think.
In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. But there are those out there who maintain this train of thought.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s definitely a disconnect between the African American community and the national pastime. Gone are the days when Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Reggie Jackson stood as the most popular ballplayers of their eras. These days, in a sports culture tainted by the specter of steroid scandals, you’d be hard pressed to name a top African American baseball player whom everyone knows.
It would be easy to blame the loss of infatuation with baseball on the fact baseball facilities are slowly disappearing from America’s urban metropolises. It would also be easy to blame basketball and football’s dominating popularity and appeal to the young black male/female. But I’m not totally buying it.
The reasons are plentiful and can vary in validity and practicality. I think you have to look deeper than economic excuses to find the root of the issue.
The Dominican Model
Yes, basketball and football seem to be the better choice of the three when baseball is entered into the equation, but it hasn’t always been that way. It also doesn’t have to be that way now. You can still get paid very well in baseball, as there are no salary caps. The Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez almost as much as the Kansas City Royals pay their entire roster.
Blaming the disconnect on our urban communities’ inability to draw in African American kids is not entirely accurate as well. Sure, there aren’t as many ball fields in urban areas as there used to be, but that kind of thinking undermines the creativity and resolve of our country’s children. The counterpoint to that argument lies in the Dominican Republic city of Santo Domingo.
The Dominican Republic is one of the biggest suppliers of prospects in Major League Baseball. The country is poor, but full-blooded Dominicans account for about 10 percent of all the players in the MLB. Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Ubaldo Jimenez all hail from the DR. It would be odd to pass through the streets and fields of the country’s capital and not find a group of kids playing baseball, with nothing more than a stick and a whatever round object they can gather for a ball. It’s more than evident that a great number of urban kids have it hard here in the U.S., but it’s much harder there in the DR.
There are glaring similarities in each case. The stigma is either you play ball or sell drugs to make it out the ‘hood. Although it’s a different kind of ball, the same reasoning rings true for thousands of young Dominicans looking to get out of poverty. The one thing that differs about the two situations is the extent of Major League Baseball’s involvement in the lower levels.
Nearly every Major League team has an “academy” in the Dominican to help groom young players into big-league prospects. What would it do for our urban children if such an initiative were emphasized here in the United States? If only the Washington Nationals would launch an initiative to help revitalize and refurbish all of D.C.’s dilapidated and forgotten urban ball fields, instead of just investing in the new condos and high rises around Nationals Park for people of a higher tax bracket. I think if there were a serious, deliberate effort to attract young African American children to baseball it would go a long way toward helping close the chasm of disinterest in the sport that has developed.
Reversing a Losing Trend
If current MLB commissioner Bud Selig really wants to bring back the romance to the relationship between blacks and baseball, he would spearhead a movement to reacquaint African American youth with his game. This isn’t to say that the MLB doesn’t do anything to address these issues, but in order to ensure that baseball does not die from neglect in the hearts of urban kids in America, it will take help from the MLB, as well as schools and parents that are willing to expose their young people to a wider variety of sports.
The church can also do its part in helping to bring baseball back. Perhaps Sunday-school classes or youth groups could plan outings to the local minor league ballgames, which are typically very affordable. Perhaps youth ministries could make sure baseball is one of the offerings for their kids during weekly recreational times or summer picnics. There are things all of us who love the sport can do to help reintroduce baseball to urban kids who are starry-eyed with pipe dreams of NBA and NFL success. If we can get them to see the beauty of the game, we can start restoring the relationship and fervor that has been lost between the bases.
If you have any additional ideas about how to get baseball back in our children’s lives, leave them in the comments section below. We can do it together.