Robinson’s historic first season in major league baseball was 1947. By the time I was born the next summer, Roy Campanella was catching for the Dodgers, and Larry Doby and Satchel Paige were playing for the Cleveland Indians. When I was old enough for my father to take me to Ebbets Field, when the Dodgers at last won their first World Series in 1955, the best black man on the Dodgers was the pitcher Don Newcombe, with a 20-5 record. The best black man in baseball was Willie Mays of the hated New York Giants, who won both National League MVP and the Hickok Belt as best professional athlete in 1954, and who led the league in homers in 1955.
They were great players, but Jackie Robinson was an icon in my New York Jewish home. I don’t know for sure why my parents revered him. They rarely made political pronouncements. They didn’t belong to any organizations. There were no black people in our all-white suburb to be friends with. It’s too late to ask them why they hated racism.
Maybe it was my father’s experience with Nazis in Vienna. Many Jews identified with African Americans as victims of brutal prejudice. Like Ben Chapman, the foul-mouthed Philadelphia manager, racists were usually also antisemites. “There are hundreds of stories that Jews have written about how important Jackie Robinson was to Jews in Brooklyn,” said Rebecca Alpert, professor of religion and women's studies at Temple University, who wrote “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball,” and who grew up, like I did, near Ebbets Field. Robinson returned the favor and later condemned the antisemitism of some black nationalists in the 1960s.
The new film “42” shows us many hard truths about how Robinson broke through baseball’s color line. Both he and Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, who was 66 in 1947, had spent years preparing for the April day when Robinson took the field for the Dodgers. Robinson was a mature married man of 28, who had already experienced and fought against discrimination in college sports and in the Army. Rickey was one of the remarkable white men who risked their careers, and were threatened with death, because they believed in equality for blacks. He had played professional baseball and football, coached at two small colleges, and become the most innovative baseball executive by creating the farm system and the first real spring training facility. Rickey had been talking with the Dodgers organization about drafting a black player since 1943.
But “42” leaves a lot out. Other African Americans helped Jackie get through that first year. He had met Joe Louis, the boxing champion, in the Army, and Louis’ protests helped him gain entrance to Officer Candidate School. Robinson and Doby often spoke on the phone during their first year in baseball. Robinson fought for the rights of African Americans on the field and off. He stole home 19 times and criticized segregated hotels and restaurants.
The film leaves out Bill Mardo, a white sportswriter for “The Daily Worker”, a Communist newspaper in New York, who had waged a public campaign to integrate baseball since 1942, asking New York fans to urge their teams to sign Negro League players. Mardo was also there in Florida as Robinson tried out for the Montreal Royals in 1946.
Watching “42”, it’s easy to hate racism and racists. The director of “42” made the unusual choice to include the entire national anthem: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey become the real Americans, who are “decent-minded”, while Ben Chapman and the white fans who screamed at Jackie are the un-American villains. Like black people, Jews and other minorities in the 1940s, racists are now the despised “other”. Even racists deny being racists before spewing some stupid, hateful remark about Michelle Obama’s clothes or her husband’s birthplace.
Hollywood makes everything simple, but racism is never easy to deal with. American racism wasn’t defeated in 1947, or in the 1960s, or with Obama’s reelection. Many racists are obviously jerks, like Ben Chapman, but some of our neighbors, and some of our political leaders, have never been cured of the racist disease.
I don’t know how my parents’ political views, our family’s history during the Holocaust, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie’s own nobility and fearless civil rights activism mixed together to make me hate racism. We all have our own trajectories of fate and chance and education, bringing us to important decisions that define our character. Jackie Robinson, like Rosa Parks and many others, endured terrible injustice to make our nation more just. They challenge us to find the better angels of our nature.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 7, 2013