Baseball and movies don’t often play well together. William Bendix as a Marine who dies happy in “Guadalcanal Diary” because he’s just heard that the Dodgers have won is an icon of 1940s Americana; the same William Bendix as the Bambino in “The Babe Ruth Story” is a sad business, to be consigned to the (bad) memory bank. “The Natural” and “Bull Durham” have their moments, but when push comes to shove, they’re both, finally, about something other than baseball. “61*,” Billy Crystal’s made-for-HBO flick about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and the chase for Ruth’s single-season home-run is a terrific story of male friendship (and gave this lifelong Yankees-deplorer a soft spot for the 1961 Bronx Bombers); but computer-graphic reconstructions of old ballparks being what they were when it was made in 2001—i.e., not that persuasive—“61*” just misses being a great baseball movie.
Now comes “42,” the long-awaited cinematic telling of the Jackie Robinson story, which I recently saw on a snowy April Sunday afternoon in the Twin Cities. I wouldn’t call it a great movie (like, for example, “The King’s Speech”); but it’s a very, very good movie, and an entirely plausible challenger to “61*” as the best baseball movie ever made. Chadwick Boseman captures some of the fierce intensity, and a lot of the raw courage, of the man who broke baseball’s color line. It wasn’t easy to imagine Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or President James Marshall (“Air Force One”) as Branch Rickey, the cigar-chomping, ultra-Methodist general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers whose Christian decency and shrewd business sense led him to take on the entire baseball establishment by signing Jackie Robinson; but Harrison Ford pulls off that role with aplomb. Kudos, too, to Nicole Beharie for capturing the steely grace, beauty and guts of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, who put up with all the racism that her husband endured and who, with him, embodied for millions of Americans the meaning of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
Columnist George F. Will once wrote that Jackie Robinson was second—a “very close second”—to Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of African Americans who reversed a nation’s racial attitudes and helped create what is, today, the most racially egalitarian society in history. “42”is a useful reminder of just how much those men, and others, had to overcome: Robinson’s teammates are, to put it gently, unenthusiastic about his presence among them; the Phillies’ race-baiting manager, Ben Chapman, mercilessly harasses Number 42 when he comes up to the plate; the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter deliberately spikes Robinson on a routine play at first base; Pirates’ pitcher Fritz Ostermueller throws a killer pitch that smashes into Robinson’s temple (in the days before batting helmets); potty-mouthed fans remind us just how foul American racial epithets could be—and how children were taught to imitate the sins of their parents.
And through it all, Jackie Robinson, in that first, crucial season, stuck to the promise he had made Branch Rickey: he would have the courage not to fight back, save in playing some of the most electrifying baseball ever seen, especially on the basepaths.
Branch Rickey was dubbed “the Mahatma” by a Brooklyn sportswriter who thought the Dodger g.m.’s style akin to of Mohandas K. Ghandi, whom John Gunther once described as “an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father.” And to the credit of screenwriter Brian Helgeland, “42” doesn’t gloss over Rickey’s Christian faith, or Jackie Robinson’s, and the role that Christian conviction played in forging their relationship and their ultimate victory. Still, when the packed crowd in that Minneapolis theatre burst into applause at the end of the movie a few weeks ago, I didn’t read it as an endorsement of Methodist theology or piety.
Rather, it seemed to me welcome evidence that, amidst vast cultural and political confusions, Americans still believe in moral truths, moral absolutes, and moral courage—and yearn for opportunities to celebrate them. There’s an important lesson in that for the country’s religious and political leaders.