But Brother Scott wrinkles his nose: For our money, Jackie Robinson is one of the secular saints of the last century.
(He was also a world-class athlete. So was his older brother, Mack Robinson, who finished second in the 200 at Adolf Hitler's Olympics. Imagine doing something like that and being the second biggest athletic hero in your family!)
Reading this morning’s New York Times, we were struck by one part of A.O. Scott’s review of the new film about Robinson.
On Opening Day 1947, Robinson integrated major league baseball. Scott describes the world of abuse to which he was thereby exposed:
SCOTT (4/12/13): The story of what happened before and after that game has been told well before—in Arnold Rampersad’s biography and in parts of Ken Burns’s “Baseball,” for instance—but “42” does a good job of dramatizing the salient emotions of the moment and the racism that surrounded Robinson and every other black American of his time. To his credit Mr. Helgeland avoids the trap that so many depictions of the Jim Crow era fall into, which is to imply that racial prejudice was an individual or regional pathology rather than a national social norm.So far, so good—or rather, so bad. As we continued, we were struck by the way Scott reviewed the teammates who took a different approach to this remarkable, sacrificed man:
So while there are a handful of snarling Southern bigots—most notably Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies—their actions are treated not as exceptions to the rule but as especially ugly instances of it. Robinson is threatened and harassed by vigilantes and police officers in Florida during his first spring training, but white fans in the North, Brooklyn included, are hardly shy about showering him with boos and slurs when he takes the field.
The other players—including Robinson’s own teammates—are not much better. He is spiked by base runners and beaned by pitchers. A petition circulates in the Dodgers’ clubhouse demanding his removal from the team, and rival owners call Rickey demanding the same thing.
As I said: a well-known story. But it is useful for young viewers to have a look at the world their grandparents were born into, a world that is still frequently given, in movies and on television, a glow of nostalgic innocence.
SCOTT (continuing directly): Of course there was decency and courage as well, here embodied by Rickey, the Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater)—one of the only Brooklyn players to shake Robinson’s hand when he first walks into the locker room—and the shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), whose public embrace of Robinson before a game in Cincinnati is the emotional high point of the movie. But “42” does not give these men disproportionate credit for passing a fairly easy test of character that most of the country was proud to fail, and it does not pretend that Robinson’s story is really theirs.Obviously, no one should ever be given “disproportionate credit” for anything. But we were struck by how easy it was for Scott to downgrade the “fairly easy test of character” Branca and Reese are said to have passed.
We had often heard about Reese. We don’t think we had ever heard about Branca, who is best known for surrounding “the shot heard round the world”—perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history.
Having read that passage today, we feel great admiration for Branca. We were struck by Scott’s description of the test he passed.
Just how easy was that test? We weren’t around in 1947, so we can’t exactly tell you. Neither was Scott, who wasn’t born until 1966.
It’s easy for Scott to pass that test—in his imagination. But would he have passed that test had he been there in real time?
What makes us think we know?
Jackie Robinson was a secular saint—and he died at age 53, perhaps from the horrible stress he began taking on at age 26. We admire Ralph Branca today because he did what so many others didn’t.
We know of no reason to feel sure that Scott would have passed that easy test. Why do we liberals condescend so, in so many ways, in matters involving such questions?