As a baseball fan who wrote a biography on Jackie Robinson when I was 11, I expected to enjoy the new movie “42.”
But I didn’t expect it to be quite so good.
What was stunning about the film for me was the strong Christian content and perspective it took. Christians were the good guys in “42” – something we don’t see frequently in releases from Hollywood these days.
I came of age just shortly after the Jackie Robinson breakthrough, when black baseball players were no longer an anomaly. By the early 1960s, as a Yankee fan, it was already hard to imagine there had been a color barrier in Major League Baseball just a few years earlier.
It was even harder to imagine there were opposing players and managers who would goad Robinson with racial insults and epithets relentlessly – trying ever so hard to crack him.
When I was growing up as an avid baseball fan (and as a youngster who wanted more than anything to become a Major League baseball player), black and Hispanic players had broken through and earned spots on every roster. Today, they dominate baseball, not because of bone structure, as one racist in the movie suggests, but because of determination and practice and the willingness to strive for excellence.
How many men could have endured that kind of stress and derision with dignity and courage the way Jackie Robinson did? Branch Rickey clearly picked the right man for the right time.
I am old enough to remember my first trip to the deep South, from the New York area where I grew up, and seeing the segregated restroom signs that play a significant role in the movie. It was mind-blowing even then as Martin Luther King was so successfully pushing desegregation.
One of the most touching moments in “42” comes when a little boy, attending a Brooklyn Dodgers game in Cincinnati, talks to his father about his hero, Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop for the Dodgers. Reese was a good old boy from Kentucky. But when the Dodgers took the field, the dad begins to heckle Jackie Robinson with racial slurs.
The little boy seems confused, because Robinson is a teammate of Reese’s. Finally, he begins to join in the taunts.
But Reese walked over to first base to put his arm around Robinson – bringing an end to the racist chorus. Just that quickly, the little boy’s conflict between idolizing his hero and his discomfort with indoctrinated hatred is resolved and dissipated.
The Jackie Robinson story is a redemptive and compelling story with strong spiritual overtones. And the movie lives up to the inspiring history.
It’s an American story, too – about how we successfully overcame racism and bigotry through sacrifice and loving one’s enemy.
Can America learn from this example today?
Or will we learn all the wrong lessons from “42”?
Are we still able to make moral distinctions between bigotry against people because of the color of their skin and disapproval of people’s destructive and sinful behavior?
Will people watch “42” and see whatever they want to see in the movie and the life of Jackie Robinson, or will they only be able to see what their pre-conceived notions about America allow them to see?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I would urge every American to see this movie and reflect deeply on how Jackie Robinson succeeded, not only personally, but in forever changing one of an American sports institution.
More than that, it’s a movie about overcoming the odds – the same way “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” gives us hope that the underprivileged can overachieve because of hard work, grit and determination.