42: Modern history story of Jackie Robinson, first African-American in Major League Baseball

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

The 2013 theatrical movie 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in 1947 to become the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. The movie follows Robinson from his days playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, his signing by Brooklyn Dodgers Corporation general manager Branch Rickey, to Robinson’s eventual acceptance into the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Along the way as Robinson endured discrimination, he proved himself with his excellent batting, running, and base stealing skills.

In the early 20th century, there was no official law preventing blacks from playing in the Majors; segregation was an unwritten rule perpetrated for the sake of “team cohesion” and because white audiences “weren’t ready.” In 1946, there were six major leagues and all 400 of their players were white. Meanwhile, blacks played in the Negro Leagues.

Branch Rickey ends the color barrier

Branch Rickey wanted to end segregation in the game he loved so much because it was the right thing to do and because he recognized that New York had plenty of black spectators who loved baseball. “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green,” said Rickey.

Rickey wanted one great black player that could end segregation once and for all. He felt that 26-year-old Jackie Robinson, a former UCLA graduate and Army officer, had the skill and temperament to do it, because the first black player would face discrimination. “I want a player who has the guts not to fight back,” said Rickey in the movie. “Your enemy will be out in force and you can’t meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, and fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you’re a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.”

History says audiences wanted black players

Rickey did not just decide he wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. During the 1930s and 1940s, many people wanted to see integrated baseball. According to Chris Lamb in the 2012 book, Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball, ”But most of white America knew nothing about this story because mainstream newspapers said little about the colour line and less about the efforts to end it. Even today, as far as most Americans know, the integration of baseball revolved around Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization in 1945. This book shows how Rickey’s move, critical as it may well have been, came after more than a decade of work by black and left-leaning journalists to desegregate the game.”

Chronicling Robinson’s rise was Wendell Smith, the assistant sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper. Because Smith was black, he was denied a press card, was restricted from dugouts and locker rooms, and had to sit in the bleachers with the audience, not the press box. “Smith had accompanied Robinson to the 1945 Red Sox tryout. In Robinson’s autobiography, he wrote, ‘I will forever be indebted to Wendell because, without his even knowing it, his recommendation was in the end partly responsible for my career,’” reported Howard Bryant in “Righting the wrongs of ‘42′,” on ESPN.com April 24, 2013.

Overcoming discrimination by playing great ball

Robinson faced discrimination from all sides. Hotels and airports refused him service, audiences booed him when his name was called up for bat, other teams yelled racial slurs at him, pitchers threw balls at his body, and many of his own white teammates signed a petition to refuse to play with him.

When Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurled racial slurs at Robinson from the dugout, Rickey observed that the viciousness of the taunts would make the audience sympathetic with Robinson. To make reparations, Chapman famously agreed to a pose for a photo with Robinson, both men holding onto a bat. In “42 (2013)” on History vs. Hollywood, “As in the movie, the photo op was set up to help get Chapman and the Phillies out of hot water with the press (and the league commissioner) after Chapman and his team’s racial slurs toward Robinson sparked headlines. In his autobiography, Robinson revealed that posing with Chapman was one of the hardest things he ever had to make himself do.” Realizing the abuse Robinson faced, team captain Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson in midfield to show everyone solidarity and acceptance.

At the end of the 1947 season, Robinson’s home runs and base hits helped the Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates for the National League Pennant and a seat at the 1947 World Series against the New York Yankees. While Robinson was voted Rookie of the Year, the Dodgers lost the Series, but history had already been made. Jackie Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Have you learned about an inspirational story of courage breaking down racial barriers?

For more information on sports history and black players and teams, check out African-American Social History and United States History 20th Century.

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