2013-04-08

42: The Jackie Robinson Story – Robinson Without a Rickey?

by Yo Snyder

In 1947, the game of baseball was forever changed as Jackie
Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Suddenly, baseball was no
longer a “white man’s sport”, but then, it probably never really was.
Regardless, it was a seismic shift in our culture to have Robinson take the
field in Major League Baseball, and it was due in a large part to the insight
and beliefs of General Manager Branch Rickey. However, would any of this have happened
if Rickey hadn’t been so bold? If he hadn’t had to the foresight to see that
this was going to happen, and therefore he might as well be the one to make it
happen, would the “color barrier” of baseball had been broken? We recently had
a chance to hear some thoughts on that subject from the stars of 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, Chadwick
Boseman and Harrison Ford. One thing to keep in mind, as Chadwick pointed out,
was that Robinson had already left a mark on history and sports long before he
got to baseball:

“Jackie Robinson was a legend, a Pasadena sports legend, and
a national legend before this moment. One of the things that I learned about
him that I did not know, he was better at football, he was a hall of fame
football player, he led the nation in scoring in basketball – he led the
conference in scoring in basketball – but he was definitely one of the top
scorers in the nation in basketball. He could have gone to the Olympics, his
brother went to the Olympics, he got a silver medal next to Jesse Owens, and he
broke his brother Max’s records in the triple-jump, so he was already a person
who was great. He had been in the military, had been court-martialed, had won the
court-martial, had won that case, and that’s actually a movie in and of itself.
So his legend before he ever reached this moment was amazing.”

The other interesting thing to keep in mind is that the so
called “color barrier” in baseball was already starting to crumble by the time
Robinson arrived on the scene. While it was by no means a popular idea, there
was a small group of players and fans who wanted to see baseball integrated. As
Chadwick pointed out, integration in baseball was very likely inevitable:

“I think it’s important to remember that baseball, well
there wasn’t just white baseball. There was Negro league baseball; there had
always been Negro league baseball. There were barnstorming games where the
white players would play the black players, and most of the time the black
players won. Maybe out of 400 games, the black players won 300. So there was
already a competition, or a competitive spirit and a desire for the game to become
integrated on both sides. There were white people who wanted it to be
integrated too. Branch Rickey was not the only person who desired this, but he
was the maverick, because he had already been an innovator in baseball before –
he created the farm system that we now know of, the minor leagues, also some of
the drills in the minor leagues – so he was the type of person that would take
the lead on this. So it probably would have happened, but maybe it wouldn’t
have happened for another ten years, or twenty years, we don’t know. But there
would have been someone at some point that would have done it, and thank God
that it was somebody that could not only play baseball but could handle the
pressure on the field and the politics and the social responsibility.”

In larger scope of things, it wasn’t just baseball that
changed because of Jackie Robinson. Harrison Ford had an interesting insight on
that note to add after Chadwick’s comments:

“And I think it would have been another ten or twenty years
before the civil rights happened in its span of time after what happened in
baseball. That’s what shouldn’t be forgotten.”

The impact Jackie Robinson had on our culture and society went
far beyond just a sport, as Mr. Ford wisely pointed out, but it’s still an interesting
question as to whether or not there would have been a Robinson without a Branch
Rickey. While the film doesn’t explore it in great detail, I think it’s very
telling that it took a Christian, a Methodist, to say, “Now’s the time to put
an end to this inequity.” There’s a moment in the film where Rickey tells
Robinson that he remembered a time when he was playing baseball and the black
players were prevented from playing in the same game was the white players. He
didn’t think that was fair, and he didn’t think that he had done enough to
change that when he had a chance. Jackie Robinson was his second chance to
correct something about the sport he loved that he perceived to be completely
unfair.

It’s a very telling moment, for how can one establish fairness
if there isn’t a higher standard by which to compare things? Indeed, in today’s
culture of non-absolutes and everything being relative, how would one ever spot
something that’s unfair? If one opinion is just as valid as any other, than how
could it ever be judged that something, even the separation of black players
from white players in baseball, is unfair? It’s a tough question, isn’t it?
Branch Rickey, however, as a Methodist, as a Christian, as someone who knew the
Bible, understood that there were indeed absolutes, that there was Truth, that
there was Right and Wrong that were established outside the conventions of
society and culture. He understood that just because the majority of the
culture felt that racial discrimination was right didn’t necessarily meant that
really was Right. That’s an opinion that couldn’t have been sustained merely on
his own conviction, especially the vitriol that would result from his
action. 

Certainly someone like Jackie Robinson probably would have
found there way into baseball sooner or later, Chadwick is definitely right
about that. And I’m not saying that only a Christian could have had the vision
and conviction to bring someone like Robinson into the sport of baseball. But
then again, no one else did, and that seems rather telling. Could there have
been a Jackie Robinson without someone like Branch Rickey? Maybe, but then
again, maybe not.