I remember the first time I learned about Jackie Robinson. It was one of those biographies for kids, and it wasn’t, as you can imagine, very detailed. It was good, and it fueled my enthusiasm for baseball, but it didn’t really give a good view of the challenges Robinson faced.
To give a bit of background, there was indeed a time when baseball was not segregated. It wasn’t until 1867 that a minor league formally segregated the baseball teams. (Ironically after the Civil War and in a Northern state-Pennsylvania.) And when famous white players began refusing to play with or against black players, the major leagues followed.
So when the general manager of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, announced his intention of signing on a black player, the fit hit the shan, as the phrase goes.
The movie does an excellent job of portraying the struggles, as well as how a lot of people simply went along with the zeitgeist, rather than any particularly strong feelings against blacks. (Although, as basic psychology will tell you, the more you act a certain way, the more your mind will adjust to it.)
Branch Rickey, as he states in the movie, was looking for a good player, but also one not afraid to take on the establishment. Robinson was not the absolutely best player in his league, but he had also been arrested a few times for what we would now call “civil disobedience”.
The movie starts out showing this, as well as showing Jackie Robinson in one of his acts of civil disobedience. He gets the call from Rickey, who says that he wants a black player “with the guts not to fight back”. Robinson is placed with the Montreal Royals, and begins to make a name for himself; and then he was signed on to the Dodgers.
The movie portrays the initial antagonism of both opposing teams (some of who refuse to play, and one who got the Dodgers’ hotel to refuse them when Robinson came with them), and with many of the players.
One of the most powerful scenes is when the Phillies’ manager, Chapman is shouting racial epithets at him as he tries to bat. It’s so vile that the team, despite many of them disliking Robinson, came together to his defense. At one point during this we see Robinson down in the dugout, beating a baseball bat to bits against the wall in frustration.
Another scene shows a player approaching Rickey, complaining about some hate mail he had been sent. As a response, Rickey opens drawer after drawer of letters addressed to Robinson, threatening to kill him, his wife, and his child.
And of course, the final scene is the most iconic. While fans spew their vitriol before one game, Pee Wee Reese comes up and throws an arm around Robinson. This picture has been immortalized both in newspapers and in a sculpture.
Robinson’s willingness to take on this tremendous role paved the way for the desegregation of baseball, and this movie does a good job of portraying his contribution.
The Reese and Robinson statue in Brooklyn, NY