Jackie Robinson once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
By that measure, his life was important and four decades after his death, it continues to be.
Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, has been the subject of countless published articles, books and documentaries. The most recent account of his life is “42,” which marks the second time his story was featured in film; the first, “The Jackie Robinson Story,” was originally released in 1950. “42” opens nationally on April 12 starring actor and Howard alum Chadwick Boseman, 31, as Robinson; veteran actor Harrison Ford as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey; and Lucas Black as Harold Peter Henry “Pee Wee” Reese, a White teammate of Robinson’s who was supportive of him playing on the team.
“42,” which was named for the number that Robinson wore, focuses on the ordeal of Robinson’s entry into all-White Major League Baseball. Besides being the first African American to play in the modern era—there were Black players in the league in the late 19th century —Robinson toted up a record so impressive during his career that it landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, only five years after he retired from pro baseball. His record included a batting average of .311, along with 1,518 hits, 137 home runs and 197 stolen bases, records show.
A native of Cairo, Ga., Robinson grew up a child of the Jim Crow South. His parents were sharecroppers. After his father left in 1920, his mother moved the family to Pasadena, Cal., where they were only Black family in his neighborhood.
During his early life, he excelled in sports at every level. In high school, he played shortstop in baseball, quarterback in football, guard in basketball and in track and field, the broad jump was his event. He also played tennis. His brother Matthew, who urged him to pursue his passion for sports, was also talented in track and field, taking a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin the same year Jesse Owens took gold, according to historical accounts.
After high school, Robinson headed to Pasadena Junior College, then to UCLA, where he became the first athlete in the school’s history to win varsity letters in four sports—football, baseball, basketball and track. It was there that he met Rachel Isum, the woman he would later marry.
After college, Robinson was drafted to the U.S. Army. He was eventually commissioned a second lieutenant and transferred to Fort Hood, in Texas, where he joined, ironically, the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion. He was arrested and faced a court martial in 1944 in connection with an incident where he refused to sit in the back of a segregated bus. He was acquitted by a panel of White officers and a few months later honorably discharged.
A few months later, Robinson signed on to play with the Kansas City Monarchs. His contract paid only $400 a year and the players traveled from town to town on buses, which often provided both transportation and housing. Concerned about the condition of the Negro Leagues, Robinson began trying to break into the majors.
The film’s producers paid homage to the Monarchs with an early showing of “42” in Kansas City to benefit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the same city, according to the Associated Press.
“This film gives us the opportunity to collectively stick out our chest,” museum president Bob Kendrick told reporters at a March 20 news conference to announce the showing. The museum was about to close when it saw a resurgence last year when the MLB All-Star Game was played in Kansas City.
Robinson was a favorite topic for legendary sports editor Sam Lacy of the Afro-American Newspapers. A staunch supporter of the Negro Leagues, Lacy urged other sports writers to focus on the league and the players. He agitated on behalf of Robinson and pointed out the wrongs of segregated sports. Lacy felt Robinson would be an excellent candidate to integrate baseball and he made those feelings known to Rickey when they served on a committee together that dealt with bringing Blacks into the league.
In 1945, Robinson was signed to play for the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Dodgers. In 1947, he debuted as a member of the team.
On April 19, 1947, the Afro ran a headline stripped across page 12 that read: “Jackie Installed as Dodger 1st Baseman.” The page featured a story about his signing and a column from Lacy about the legions of fans who waited for Robinson outside Ebbets Field. “Many wanted autographs, others simply wanted to touch him,” Lacy wrote. “It was just as though the former Negro American League ball player had suddenly been transformed into some kind of matinee idol—only his fans weren’t bobbysoxers, nor did they capitalize on the swoon.”
A photo of Robinson standing in front of the entrance to the Dodger Club House read, “First of his race to enter the sacred major league baseball team’s dressing room as a player…Jackie was installed as number 42 of the Dodgers.”
The film offers a glimpse into the trials of the Black men and women who led the fight for freedom. Robinson, on the baseball field, faced violence, intimidation and threats of death, just as civil rights workers faced racial hatred helping people to register to vote in the Deep South. And just like them, he has been martyred for his contribution.
“Jackie was not the best player in the Negro leagues,” Lacy told Sports Illustrated in 1990, “but he was the most suitable. Oh, that’s a terrible word, suitable. But he was the right man. He had gone to a racially-mixed college, been an Army officer and had been such a football star at UCLA that he was used to media attention.”
The most glaring omission in the film is the absence of a character to depict the AFRO’s Lacy and other legendary Black sports writers and editors who played a pivotal role in lobbying White club owners and managers to bring Black players into their organizations. How anyone could tell Robinson’s story without Lacy shows a lack of respect for the reality of Robinson’s entry into major league baseball.
After retiring from baseball, Robinson worked as a businessman. He died in 1972 at 53 of complications of diabetes.
The number 42 was retired from pro baseball in 1997 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s entry into the major leagues.
42 is rated PG-13.
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