More than a game by Richard K. Johnston
Across from our city hall is a giant sculpture of two heads – the faces of two brothers who were some of our most illustrious citizens: Jackie and Mac Robinson. Mac was an Olympian, and Jackie the first African American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. With professional sports now dominated by athletes of color, it is hard for those under forty to realize how difficult and courageous it was for Robinson to suit up with the Brooklyn Dodgers; likewise for the general manager and president, Branch Rickey, to hire him. We too easily forget as well how these forged decisions by two men, one black and one white, were so transformative of individual lives, communities, structures and even a nation.
The movie 42 brings this story to life. It focuses in particular on two pivotal years in Robinson’s life – 1945-1947, when Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) married Rachel (Nicole Beharie), was hired by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to play in the Dodger’s organization, and then made his major league debut. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for L. A. Confidential and the dark but moving film Mystic River, 42 entertains while it inspires and instructs, recalling for all Americans both our painful past and those courageous heroes who have helped us partially transcend it. Additionally 42 tells a gripping story of faith, even if at times it comes near to walking over the line of sentimentality. 42 suggests that the game of baseball became more than a game as it dealt a lethal blow to the color divide that characterized American life in the 1940’s. Certainly much more needed to transpire, and still needs to transpire with regards to racial equality in the United States, but we also have an African American President! It is probable that this might never have happened if Jackie Robinson had not transformed America by transforming baseball.
More than mere courage
42 (Robinson’s jersey number) recounts the story of the Dodger’s general manager, Branch Rickey, who at age 65, when many were retiring, decided to risk everything by integrating baseball. Rickey’s motives – like all of ours – were mixed. He was a businessman who believed that black players could help his team win and thus make more money. But he also came to believe in racial justice as he dealt with his own past sins of commission and omission, and identified with the suffering of others. So he signed Robinson to a contract. A four-year letterman at UCLA who was perhaps better at other sports, and arguably not the best player in the Negro League, Robinson was nonetheless Rickey’s choice to integrate the big leagues. Calling Robinson into his office, he told him: “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back… Your enemy will be out in force, and you cannot meet him on his own low ground.” And Robinson, equal to the task, responded, “You give me the uniform, and you give me a number on my back, and I’ll give you the guts.” And that he did.
But, as the movie wonderfully portrays, courage alone was not enough. Without community, such courage would have been impossible to maintain. Robinson was forced to live separately from his team when he played in the South. He had to weather a humiliating petition signed by many of his own teammates protesting his signing. The racial slurs from fans and even opposing managers would test even the strongest of character.
It was Rachel’s love and commitment that helped Jackie stay centered, for in their life together, they shared his calling and his commitment. Important as well, was the support of Wendell Smith, an African American baseball writer who was hired by Rickey to help Robinson navigate the game. It is Smith who narrates the movie and gives it much of its life. He also is significant in his own right, the first black journalist admitted to the Baseball Writers’ Association. And then there were those key Dodger teammates who ultimately came to Robinson’s defense – Eddie Stankey who challenged the racial slurs of the Philly’s manager, and the Dodger’s star shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, who caused a scandal by walking over to Robinson on the field when he was being racially attacked, and putting his arm around his teammate. What might be thought a small gesture proved as powerful as any grenade. Such community was shockingly re-orienting for players and fans, but also centering for Robinson.
The role of faith
There was also a third force at work in these events, one that the movie makes explicit. Courage, community, and faith. In 42, faith goes beyond the covenant that Rickey and Robinson make with each other; it even goes beyond the deep faith that Jackie and Rachel have in each other. There is also their faith in God that lifts them up. Though his play in the big leagues was relentlessly painful, Robinson never gave up. As he said, “God built me to last.” Rickey understood just how difficult the days were for Jackie as he told him that he was the one “living the sermon.” Through living the sermon, a manager was transformed, the Dodgers were transformed, baseball was transformed, and a country’s transformation is “begun but not yet.”
At one point in the movie when Robinson tells Rickey he’s a Methodist, Rickey replies, “I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist!” It is Rickey who tells Jackie that like the Savior he must have the guts to turn the other cheek. And it is Rickey, “the film’s theologian,” who also responds when his players threatened to boycott the game by countering, “All I can say is you’re going to meet God someday and when he asks you why you didn’t take the field and you say, ‘because he is a negro,’ that may not be a sufficient reply!”
When we saw the movie, we heard it asking the question that the book of James asks its readers, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1)
We saw this movie at a studio preview January 31st. It was Jackie’s birthday. There we met his niece, Rose Robinson (Mac’s daughter). While ostensibly a baseball movie, what we actually saw was a story about our common humanity, and the courage, community and faith necessary to embrace it together. The movie opened in theaters across America on April 12th, just three days before all major league baseball players once again commemorate Robinson’s singular contribution both to America and to baseball by collectively wearing number “42.” It is the only day of the season that you will see that “retired” number appear on any jersey – an honor given to no other player in major league history.
We are all in debt to this American hero. Now it’s our turn to live the sermon.
What does it mean for you to “live the sermon” today?
To learn more about Jackie Robinson’s achievement, order Scott Simon’s book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, from our online store. You might also read Chuck Colson’s article, “Baseball’s ‘Great Experiment’: The Jackie Robinson Story.”
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This article is from Christian World Journal written by Robert K. Johnston