When Jackie Robinson Fought Back: A New Movie Elevates the Trailblazing Ballplayer's Nonviolence over His Furious Competitive Spirit

Article excerpt


BY NOW, even most non-baseball fans know the basic storyline of Jackie Robinson, the man who in 1947 broke through the color line of Major League Baseball.

A gifted athlete, college man, and fierce competitor, Robinson was chosen to be first through the racial barrier (though not the first black man in pro ball; that distinction belongs to the 19th-century catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker) in part because he was smart enough to heed Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey's instructions to greet the inevitable abuse--death threats, beanballs, a constant barrage of hideous insults--by turning the other cheek. "I need a player with the courage not to fight back," Harrison Ford, playing Rickey, explains in the new film 42.

It's the movie's signature line, and the foundation upon which baseball has erected an unwieldy, self-congratulatory myth, now celebrated each April 15 by having every Major League player wear Robinson's otherwise retired jersey number 42. (In the movie's cheesiest moment, future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese tells Robinson, "Maybe someday we'll all wear number 42.") There is something irresistibly heroic about successful nonviolent campaigns against majoritarian tyranny, whether at the ballpark or lunch counter. By publicly absorbing violence, martyrs simultaneously hold up a mirror to society while embodying the ideal of an "acceptable" minority: noble, intelligent, and physically non-threatening.

But in our zeal to turn Jackie Robinson into Martin Luther King Jr., we are scrubbing from history his much longer career as baseball's Malcolm X--a righteously angry, relentlessly self-reliant activist and social critic. Robinson played with pacifist handcuffs for only his first two years in the big leagues. From 1949 to his retirement after the 1956 season--and then after his playing career was over--Jackie Robinson fought back.

The fighting version of number 42 was not remotely as popular as the saint. But it's a much more accurate picture of a complicated and interesting man. If baseball, let alone society, wishes to confront head-on the pathologies behind segregation and the fortitude required to overcome institutional racism, then it needs to grapple with the whole, thorny competitive spirit of Jackie Robinson, not the easy-to-digest, sepia-toned myth.

As Branch Rickey himself recalled in 1963: "He was direct, aggressive, the kind that stands up when he is faced with injustice and will hit you right in the snoot." So much for turning the other cheek.

When I was a young baseball fanatic growing up in baseball-crazed Long Beach, California, in the 1970s, there was one book about the national pastime that towered above the rest: Lawrence Ritter's charming, evocative, and influential 1966 oral history, The Glory of Their Times.

Ritter, an economist at New York University, was moved by the 1961 death of baseball great Ty Cobb to track down as many turn-of-the-century professional ballplayers as he could find to testify about the forgotten sights and smells of a bygone era, in much the same way that John and Alan Lomax tracked down American folk musicians in the 1930s and '40s.

The Glory of Their Times has never been out of print since. There is no list of "best baseball books" that doesn't include it, and rightly so. It helped jumpstart the burgeoning field of baseball historiography, and it remains a pure pleasure to read. As the baseball writer Bill James has observed, four of the 22 players interviewed for the first edition--Stan Coveleski, Goose Goslin, Harry Hooper, and Rube Marquard--were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame within five years of Glory's publication, despite questionable qualifications and no prior momentum to their candidacies. Jim Carouthers summarized the book succinctly and accurately in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001): "Often imitated, never excelled. …