The sun blistered down from the afternoon sky. Sweat rolled down my forehead as I adjusted my cap, my feet spread and balanced beneath me. The trapper was heavier than the catcher’s mitt I usually wore, but I was only in Grade 8, my first year in a league that included high school seniors. First base was the only position available, and like any good coach’s son, I played where I was needed. It didn’t make me any less nervous. I’d be catching throws from our seventeen year old shortstop, Tim, who had a cannon for an arm. Just breathe, I told myself. You can do this. For the first three innings, I caught every throw on the grounders, and while I tried to make each play look casual – I just had to catch the ball, something I’d done since I was five – I still hadn’t relaxed.
With two outs in the fourth inning, one of the opposing team’s older players hit a rocket headed to right field. I dove to my left, and to my utter surprise, I caught it. I stared at my glove even as my teammates cheered and patted me on the back, the older players nodding in approval. I was still looking at my glove when I got to the bench.
Mr. Lesco, one of my coaches, smiled. “Nice catch, Steve. But remember, Mattingly doesn’t look at the glove.”
I nodded. I understood what he was saying. You belong here, now act like it. Don't look at your glove. I felt my shoulders loosen, and when my teammate stepped to the plate, I joined in with the other boys, excited, but no longer nervous. It was just baseball, a sport I’d played and followed since I was a child. It was a different league, but the game was the same.
I remember the first time I saw Willie Mays play. I was ten years old, and the grainy, black and white footage of his famous over the shoulder catch against Cleveland in the 1954 World Series enraptured me. As a kid, I’d been regaled by tales from my father of those glory days of baseball, back when he was a young man and the world was changing. Changing so much that even he didn’t realize it. Didn’t realize what it would mean for his son. For most of my childhood, I pressed my dad for stories and read whatever I could get my hands on. Stories of the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Willie Mays played his last professional game when I was a baby, but well into high school, he remained my favourite player. A black man, idolized by a white boy, twenty years after he retired.
This would have been impossible when my dad was a kid. Or nearly so. When Mays broke into the major leagues as a rookie in 1951, it’d only been four years since Jackie Robinson had obliterated the colour barrier, a wall so thick it had seemed impregnable only a year earlier. Blacks playing with whites. A black athlete competing with the best Caucasian players in the world. Jesse Owens had shown a prejudiced world in 1936 what a black athlete could do, but where I came from, baseball was more important than the Olympics. Baseball was every day. Baseball was oatmeal for breakfast, girls learning to be ladies and Father Knows Best. Baseball got it right.
Before Susan Sarandon ever uttered her belief in the “church of baseball,” I believed in it, too. As a boy, the first stories I ever wrote were of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and of course, the, ‘Say Hey’ Kid. In my stories, I turned them into heroes off the field, saving innocent people from fires and hunting down criminals. I basked in the warm glow of sports mythology, none of which shone quite as brightly as my favourite sport. Books like Roger Kahn’s classic, The Boys of Summer, only fed my appetite for tales of the Great Ones.
When I was seventeen, my dad and I went with Mr. Lesco and his son, Josh (my best friend) to see Field of Dreams. When the movie was over, my old coach leaned over and asked me what mistake they’d made in the film. I answered without hesitation. Shoeless Joe Jackson was left handed. In the movie, Ray Liotta had played him as a righty both in the field and at the plate. He’d smiled, nodding in approval. A seventeen year old shouldn't have known those kinds of things about baseball, not about a player who’d played his last game around the end of World War I. From the time I was ten, however, something about the game made me want to be better. I didn't know it then, but baseball was, and had always been, the perfect vehicle of change for a culture redefining itself. That it was mythical didn’t make it untrue. It just meant that it had room for heroes. And when it came to heroes, no one was bigger than Jackie Robinson.
Fifty seven years have passed since his first game with Brooklyn, and his story now casts such a large shadow that in some ways it obliterates just how special he was, how much he endured, and how he not only saved the game itself, but forced the culture around it to shift. Shifts that still reverberate decades later. For an artist to interpret that type of story, one as powerful and mythic as Robinson’s, it requires a uniquely steady and sensitive hand. One that can fashion drama around a story that has been told and re-told, without removing the inspiration of the story itself. That is a daunting task for any film maker, and if you read the critic’s reviews of “42” when it appeared in theatres a year ago, many of them suggested that the film was “earnest and inspirational,” but “too safe and old-fashioned.”
Nonsense. In time, 42 will enter the cannon of films that extend the mythos of sports stories beyond the box score, the ones that highlight the search for human dignity and the fight for something more, a fight reflected in every civilization throughout history. The only thing “old-fashioned” about the film is that it presents the ruthlessness of racism while pushing us towards something better. It allows us to confront our demons without causing us to cover our eyes. It pushes us away, then pulls us back and asks us what we truly believe.
There are times the film underplays the abuse Robinson suffered, aside from one scene with a particularly loathsome Philadelphia manager, but director Brian Helgeland keeps the lens centered on a racist culture, if only in the background. (The seeming ubiquity of a bathroom door with ‘Whites’ on it is particularly galling. And to think this was only fifty years ago.) And too often for my liking, the movie tilts towards “The Help” territory, powerful whites helping blacks. Harrison Ford gives an inspiring, growly impression as Branch Rickey, the Dodger owner who made it his legacy to integrate the game, and his performance includes moments of genuine humour. (“Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”) Unfortunately, there are times when the movie feels it’s as much about Rickey as it is Robinson.
Those are minor criticisms. Boseman is excellent here, and as so much of the film is about the players and culture responding to him, he is less the driving force of the movie and more the anchor. He gives Robinson a steady stoicism and athletic grace on the field. Off the field, however, he allows us to see Jackie’s inner joy with his wife, and his smile lights up the screen with warmth and charisma. Helgeland, who also wrote the film and is white, writes with purpose and sensitivity. He reveals that much of our bigotry, by seemingly decent people, stems from never having to confront how we feel about certain aspects of our culture. That sometimes change occurs only when we are faced with extreme views of those beliefs.
We are all raised to believe certain things. We believe them because of our parents, our church, our teachers and coaches and everyone else who aided in our shaping. And too often, we move through our adult life without ever questioning those beliefs, those beginnings, even when they’re clearly wrong.
Here, the non-racist players are forced to confront how they really feel by their more adamantly bigoted teammates, the ones who circle a petition to have Robinson booted from the team. When the Philadelphia manager (played here with alarming force by Helgeland alum, Alan Tudyk) starts in on Robinson, the camera pans to the dugout, where some of the players, the ones who signed the petition, recoil in disgust. This is the moment they decide. Are black people human? Are they equal? Most people think we get a lifetime to make those choices, but we don’t. Life is a fast flowing river, and once we make a decision like that, we’re more apt to justify it than challenge it again.
PeeWee Reese, the Hall of Fame shortstop, helps the fans of Cincinnati hollering at Robinson come to that place by placing his arm around his new teammate at the beginning of a game. When he slaps Robinson on the shoulder and says “maybe one day, we’ll all wear your jersey,” my eyes welled up. The line is a Helgeland addition that works like one of Spike Lee’s signature visuals, pulling us briefly from the story. (It’s a nod to baseball’s new yearly tradition to choose one game in April where every player in both leagues wears Robinson’s number.)
Pulling a moviegoer out of a story is dangerous, and it must be done surgically to work properly. But even as that line slammed me back into the present, I quivered under a wave of inspiration.
We do so many damn things wrong as humans, we screw up so many times that sometimes it’s all you can do to pull your blanket over your head at our race’s incessant cruelty and ignorance. And then there are these other moments, the ones that whisper to our ability to be better, to stand beside our black teammate in the face of a white crowd, a racist white culture, and say “the hell with it. I can be better. We can be better.”
More, it’s people like Robinson, (who some will insist I am canonizing here, which I will not apologize for) who, simply by being willing to stand up for themselves in the face of great adversity, and yes, great evil, remind us that human dignity is not something cheap. That it can’t be bought or plagiarized by the next generation. That it is something we must never lose sight of, if only because of our very human tendency to exclude those who are different from us, those with whom we are unfamiliar.
The movie deals delicately with these ideas, grounding them in the players’ slow adjustment to Robinson. Bit by bit, some of them begin to see what they truly believed, begin to see the inhumanity of it and what they’ll believe in the future.
When Robinson accepts his owner’s challenge to “be tough enough not to fight back”, we’re shown how his frustration occasionally boils over, but it is only because of what he must endure. We never get the idea that Number 42 is out of place in the white league. That he feels he doesn’t belong. And by the time he hits the home run against the Pirates and glides along the bases in slow motion, we realize that he’s right. It was never about him. We didn’t know it until he showed us, but all this time it was us. We were the ones looking at our glove.
***** Highly recommended.
NOTE: This blog is dedicated to my amazing father, Don Burns, who coached (and acted as commissioner) for Welland Minor Baseball for 35 years (and who coached me most of my life). I still remember the time he used to spend on the phone calling players and planning his practices. Our basement was inevitably crowded with baseball equipment, and to this day, I still love that smell.
I'd also like to dedicate this to Mr. (Don) Lesco, my former coach and high school English teacher who was beloved by his players (including me)and inspired students for generations.
And for all of you who take the time to volunteer as coaches, I want to say 'thank you,' the world is a kinder place because of you. The kids may not understand now the sacrifices that you make for them, but they will, and they'll never forget it.