42 turns 94: Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson

42 turns 94: Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson January 31, 2013

I am looking forward to this:

42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic coming in the spring, won’t likely tell us a story we don’t already know, but that’s fine — we love this story. I don’t need to see the story reinvented, just re-presented and retold with love and respect. Imagine Peter Jackson spent 10 years building replicas of Ebbets Field and Shibe Park and Blues Stadium in New Zealand — that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.

As we discussed yesterday regarding Martin Luther King Jr., there’s always a temptation to co-opt such stories to make them stories about us instead. James W. McCarty wrote of our tendency to shape King in our own image, and Hollywood notoriously loves to do the same thing with people like Jackie Robinson. So I’m worried that this movie may be a self-congratulatory saga for white people, celebrating how America got rid of racism in 1947 and hasn’t seen it since.

Jackie Robinson poses for a photo with Phillies manager Ben Chapman. The photo was staged by Major League Baseball as a PR effort to repair the damage from some of Chapman’s racist comments and actions toward the Dodger great.

I’m also worried that 42 may wind up as more of a Branch Rickey biopic. Don’t get me wrong, Rickey deserves our praise, but Rickey’s role in this story was that of a man who had the courage to sign a player with 10 times more courage than he would ever need himself. Branch Rickey is a terrific role for Harrison Ford, just as Pee Wee Reese is a terrific role for Lucas Black, Dixie Walker is a terrific role for Ryan Merriman, and Leo the Lip is a terrific role for Chris Meloni — but they’re supporting players in this story. It’s not their story, but Robinson’s. (I haven’t seen Chadwick Boseman in anything, but he looks great in the trailer.)

Firefly fans please note that Alan Tudyk also has a terrific part in this film — at least in the sense that villains are always fun parts to play. Tudyk will be playing Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman — a far cry from the loveable space pilot Wash Washburne. As Philly sportsblogger Justin Klugh explains, Chapman “was a horrible bigot with a tiny, tiny brain.”

Klugh notes that the initial joy of “seeing a great actor from a cool show appear in a historical baseball movie as a Phillie” is overruled by the fact that Tudyk “will be portraying one of the sh–tier fiends in the sport’s history.” Robinson himself said that Phillies fans and Phillies players were among the worst for the vitriolic racism they poured forth at him as a player, and it seems that Tudyk’s character will represent that in the film.

This is why villain roles are so important. Tudyk has a trickier role than Ford does. It would be easy — and empty — to portray Chapman as a cartoon villain, a scapegoat for American racism. Then us white folks in the audience could watch the movie and reassure ourselves that we would never be like that. If this were 1947 we would all, of course, be Branch Rickey or Pee Wee Reese and, of course, none of us would be like that awful Ben Chapman. And thus, we could tell ourselves, that in 2013 we must be more like Rickey than like Chapman. If we hate the movie’s Bad Guy, then we must be the Good Guys — now and forevermore, never needing to change or to grow or to be challenged.

I’m hoping that director Brian Helgeland’s script and Tudyk’s performance can escape that trap.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

My family has our own Jackie Robinson story. This one happened after the Dodgers star had retired from baseball.

My dad was running for county office as a Republican, and so he was scheduled to introduce one of the speakers at a 1960 campaign rally in Plainfield, N.J.

The headliner at the rally was the vice president, Richard Nixon, the party’s candidate for President of the United States. Dad wasn’t asked to introduce the vice president, he got to do something far cooler. He introduced the speaker who would introduce Nixon: Jackie Robinson.

My dad lost his election in November and that ended his brief political career, but for Dad that 1960 election was still a triumph because Dad, a lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan as well as a lifelong Republican, got to introduce Jackie Robinson. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

A lot of people now would be surprised to learn that Jackie Robinson was an avid Republican, someone who the GOP could call on to fire up a crowd in support of Richard Nixon. But that was 1960, before the great reversal in which the Democratic Party purged itself of the Dixiecrats and the Republican Party embraced them with open arms. This was before King’s March on Washington, before Bloody Sunday, before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and before Nixon returned to the campaign trail with the Southern Strategy that would cement the switch.

Between 1960 and 1968, things changed. And so did Jackie Robinson, as Michael G. Long explained last year on HuffPo:

Although he had found Nixon to be racially progressive in the late 1950s and even campaigned for him in 1960, by 1968 Robinson was labeling the Republican ticket as “racist.” He was especially angered by Nixon’s open courtship of Senator Strom Thurmond and other Southern segregationists during the presidential campaign. “Now he’s sold out,” he stated about Nixon. “He’s prostituted himself to get the Southern vote.”

Robinson saw his former party, and his country, changing, and he didn’t like what he saw. In 1969, Robinson told The New York Times, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. … When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”

Nixon responded by asking J. Edgar Hoover to compile an FBI file on the hall-of-famer.

And yet, as Long writes:

Robinson’s faith kept him hopeful, and shortly before his death [in October, 1972] he penned his last known letter to Nixon. The issue at hand was Nixon’s opposition to busing, and Robinson thundered forth like a prophet. “Mr. President,” he wrote, “…[b]ecause I want so much to be a part of and to love this nation as I once did, I hope you will take another look at where we are going and be the president who leads the nation to accept difficult but necessary action, rather than the one who fosters division.”

Nixon did not reply, and Robinson died of complications from diabetes seven months later.


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  • Your story reminds me of the exchange in a Doctor Who episode from last year. On the day of the moon landing, one of Nixon’s aides has just saved the world:

    President Nixon: This person you want to marry. Black?

    Canton: Yes…

    President Nixon: I know what people think of me. But perhaps I’m a little more liberal…

    Canton: [interrupting] …he is.

    President Nixon: [after a long pause] I think the moon is far enough for now; don’t you, Mr Delaware?

    Canton: [resigned, yet smug] I figured it might be.

  • Darkrose

    As a black baseball fan–even if, as any good Giants fan, I hate the Dodgers–I’m excited about this movie. I’m also a bit saddened, however, because 66 years after Jackie first suited up in Dodger blue, the percentage of African-American players in baseball has dwindled to fewer than at any time since 1947. My team, the team of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, has exactly zero African-American players on our active roster. 

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Part of the problem is that football and can be more lucrative more quickly, and have the advantage of scholarship money for college. Basketball doesn’t require any expensive equipment or 17 other guys to play. If MLB actually wanted to do something, they could increase their efforts to get Little League going in urban areas–and also point out that baseball is less likely than football to leave you with permanent brain damage, and even if you do get hurt, your contract is guaranteed, so you don’t have to play through injury out of fear of losing your job.

  •  Have you heard of RBI, the MLB program to do some of what you’re advocating? From what I can tell it’s not affiliated with Little League; rather it’s complementary.


  • P J Evans

     Also a Giants fan, from the days of M & M, but my grandmother bled Dodger blue. (I grew up with Vin as well as Russ. I still can’t root for them, but I don’t insult them either – at least not since they got rid of that last #$%^&* owner.)

  • Darkrose

    I wasn’t aware of that program. That’s cool; I’m surprised and impressed that MLB recognizes that there’s a problem.

  •  Glad to help. Even a Giants fan deserves a hand once in a while! ;)

    Who, me, a Dodgers fan? Just because I was nine years old when I first heard Vin and Jerry Doggett on KFI through an old blue “portable” Motorola radio that I carried throughout our Westwood house that summer and fall of 1959 as they won the World Series for the first time in LA? And who’s lived and died with them for the fifty-plus years since? Nah, not me.

  •  If you think you’re pleased McCourt sold, imagine how we Dodgers fans feel!

  • Darkrose

    I actually felt bad for them with McCourt, because that was so screwed up, but now that they’re trying to be the Yankees of the West, I’m fine with mocking them* mercilessly.

    *The team as a whole. Individually, they seem to be an okay bunch of guys. I would love to see Matt Kemp in orange and black.

  • Darkrose

    I was a leukwarm White Sox fan for most of my life. Then I met and married a passionate Giants fan. I joke that I originally started following them out of self-defense; now I know I’m a true fan because I’m convinced I could do a better job of managing the team than Bruce Bochy. (Not really; I’d suck at it)

  •  No team here, so I don’t have much to add to this conversation other than to say that Tudyk was absolutely terrifying as Alpha on Dollhouse, so I have no doubt in his ability to do this villain well.  I haven’t seen in yet, but I also hear he’s incredible in Wreck It Ralph. 

  •  Oh, man, I’ve risked doubly offending you! That 1959 World Series was one in which the Dodgers defeated your White Sox, and then you became a Giants fan, which automatically incurs my disdain.  Ah well, ask your partner about the Dodgers-Giants playoff in 1962 or Joe Morgan’s home run in 1982. Then you can rub my nose in it. (Don’t even mention 1951, thank you very much.)

  • Darkrose

    Nah, I’ll just go home and continue our re-watching of the 2012 post-season. :)

  • Lori


    at least not since they got rid of that last #$%^&* owner. 

    Thank FSM for that. Lord, that guy was just evil on the hoof.

    I am by birth and familial training a Tigers fan, but living in LA with a nearly life-long Dodger fan some of it rubbed off. The McCourt years were truly grim. He made Rupert Murdoch seem, not good, but less bad. That’s quite a feat, and not in a good way.

  • Lori

    “Mr. President,” he wrote, “…[b]ecause I want so much to be a part of and to love this nation as I once did 

    I hate that Jackie Robinson died feeling this way out his country. More precisely, I hate that shitty people created a situation where he had every reason to feel this way.

  • Something needs to be remembered about Branch Rickey – yes, it was wonderful that SOMEBODY in major league baseball finally broke with tradition and hired an African American.  But by doing so, Rickey was got one of the best players in the Negro League.  People could see the writing on the wall – baseball was going to be integrated, it was just a matter of time.  By acting first, Rickey was able to mine that league for some of the best talent in the country.

    Maybe Rickey’s only motivation was to correct the injustice of the color barrier.  But he was no dummy, and it paid off for him.

  • SisterCoyote

     This. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, the thought that Nixon let such a great man go to his grave feeling like his country didn’t want him. That this happened, that the United States, or at least a not-insignificant portion of it, pushed… well, a not-insignificant portion of people out of citizenship. And that we’re still bloody dealing with trying to even take steps to fix it, that there are people who deny white privilege, and I’m getting about as fed up with them as I am with the people who actually defend it*.

    And I’m back to ranting about how pointlessly mindlessly stupid it is, to try and condense the story of Jackie Robinson, of Dr. Martin Luther King, of just about any hero of the past, into a story of Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys, in some horrific misguided effort to absolve the future of guilt. Which, I think, is what Fred is saying, so I’ll just cut the next six paragraphs short here.

  • P J Evans

     Don’t have to imagine it – I live in Los Angeles. Now if there was a way to keep the politicians from buying into ‘we have to have a football stadium downtown because NFL’….

  • P J Evans

    Rubbing it in:  Baltimore in 1966.

  •  Oh, now that’s just unkind. You know what’s worse? I kind of got fond of the Earl Weaver Orioles a few years later.

  • Carstonio

    I liked Soul of the Game, with Blair Underwood as Robinson and Edward Herrmann as Rickey.

    Nixon’s betrayal of civil rights shouldn’t have been a surprise. As a politician he was always cruelly opportunistic, first rising to prominence with red-baiting demagoguery. For someone of his mentality, the Southern Strategy was merely more of the same.

  • vsm

    After Lincoln, Django and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (my favorite of the lot), it’s nice to see a historical movie about race in America that’s not set in the 19th century. I hope it does well, especially since it might finally inspire someone to finance Danny Glover’s Toussaint L’Ouverture biopic.

  • P J Evans

     My mother, in particular, never forgave Tricky Dicky for his red-baiting. (Let’s just say that I never did believe his stories about Watergate.)

  • Carstonio

    The Glass Teat columns by Harlan Ellison put Watergate into perspective. He was one of the few writers warning of the Nixon Administration’s attempts to stifle dissent. These and the abuses of power revealed during Watergate amounted to a thuggish subversion of democracy.

  • wendy

    Am I really the first commenter to note that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything?!?

  • BC

    I became a Dodger fan because of Jackie Robinson.  Listening to the World Series in a classroom in New Mexico, I was enthralled by Jackie’s exploits on the bases.   I haven’t been following the Dodgers since 1990s, but they are still my team.

  • renniejoy

     Yeah, that’s the answer to the ultimate question.  :)

    What if the ultimate question is “Doctor Who?”