Ralph Branca passed an important test!

FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2013

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 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.
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:
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?


  1. "Why do we liberals condescend so, in so many ways, in matters involving such questions?"

    Because liberalism is based at least as much on intellectual snobbery as it is on principal.

    Robinson, BTW, is quite ironically, seriously underrated as a ballplayer. According to revolutionary statistician Bill James, Robinson was sensational at every position he fielded with the exception of first base. He also had a terrific on-base percentage of .409. Plus, because of segregation, he started his career at age 28--the average start of a player's decline phase and he was a diabetic which accelerates the aging process.

    I mean, was this guy great or what?

    1. "Because liberalism is based at least as much on intellectual snobbery as it is on principal."

      True that. Lots of 'em even believe in science.


    2. Seriously underrated by whom? He was rookie of the year, an MVP, and a six-time All Star in a 10-year career.

      He was also a first ballot Hall of Famer, and not because he broke the "color barrier."

      In fact, the conventional wisdom is that Rickey carefully chose Robinson because of his incredible talents because if Robinson failed on the field, it would have been a disaster.

    3. But I think HB's legitimate point is that for most people younger than, say, 65, his breaking the color barrier overshadows the performance. It's always good for later generations to be reminded just how good he was -- and for that matter, that he probably was not the most talented black ballplayer in the country at the time.

    4. HB's point is clearly stated: "Robinson, BTW, is quite ironically, seriously underrated as a ballplayer."

      Which is bull. I have never, ever heard anyone "seriously under-rate" Robinson as a ballplayer.

      Is Robinson rememered as the guy who broke the color barrier? Well, duh. Does that overshadow what he did on the field? Hardly.

      You know, it can be both/and. Robinson can be remembered as a great player who broke the color barrier. And that is pretty much how he is remembered by people who aren't addicted to strawman arguments.

    5. HB here typing from a public computer.

      I have only once heard Robinson talked up strictly as a player. Everyone acknoweldges that he was a good player but I have never read or heard his play discussed in the glowing terms his career would seem to merit with the lone exception of Bill James in The Historical Baseball Abstract* (and even he leaves out the context that Robinson accomplished what he did in what is usually a player's decline phase with a chronic debilitating illness to boot or even his outstanding lifetime .409 OBP).

      So, I call bull on those calling bull.

      *BTW, the glowing references to Robinson as a field in the 2000 abstract are actually mentioned in his entry for Bill Mazoroski.

      Lunch break over. See ya.

    6. "I have only once heard Robinson talked up strictly as a player."

      And of course, your experience is universal.

      Let me repeat what was said.

      "Robinson, BTW, is quite ironically, seriously underrated as a ballplayer."

      Once again:

      " . . . seriously underrated as a ballplayer."

      One more time for emphais:

      " . . . seriously underrated as a ballplayer."

      I ask once again, by whom?

      The answer is obvious: Not by the people who saw him play and voted him as Rookie of the Year, MVP, six-time All Star, or first-ballot Hall of Famer.

      And only by yahoos who never saw him play, but like to build strawman arguments.

      And FYI, that little global event called WWII would have still prevented Robinson from starting his career much before he did.

    7. HB here again.

      First off, I'm a fairly obsessive reader of baseball history and have never read anything other than Bill James even attempt to explain just how special Robinson was as a ballplayer. Of course he is recognized as an excellent player. I'm arguing that he was a top-tier hall of famer. Closer to a Hornsby than, say, Pee Wee Reese who, like both Robinson and Hornsby is a hall of famer but hardly a top tier one.

      Yes, of course, there was some serious recognition in his lifetime but the historical record of his greatness as a player does seem to have vanished. Perhaps you could cite something that disproves my claim?

      Bill James the highly-respected baseball analyst has himself said that Robinson is underatted because lauding him as a civil rights icon is "practically an industry."

      WWII doen't change much. He still got a late start and at least two years later than would be normal because of his race.

      I really don't see why you such a bug up your ass about this. Here's hoping you find the help you need with your issues, which at heart, I imagine, are extremely silly. Perhaps you could consult a friend assuming, of course, that you actually one.


  2. Here, let me confirm that snobbery for you, you blithering ignoramus. The word is "principle."

  3. Well done. That's exactly what a liberal idiot of the present stripe would say. You are either a master of intellectual mimicry or a classically unaware self-parodying stereotype.

    Obviously, being something of a sophisticate myself, I'm openly rooting for the latter.

  4. Quaker in a BasementApril 12, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    A. O. Scott is a liberal? Are you sure?

    Even if he is, why do I have to pay for his sin?

  5. I think most people assume they would have been on the right side if they had been around when a historic wrong was being committed.

  6. What Quaker in Basement said. (Though I don't identify myself as a liberal. I prefer, for instance, the old word "leftist." Liberals have always been sell-outs. Something the young Mr. Somerby seems totally oblivious to, but then, he went to Harvard at a certain time. Cambridge not the best place to get a feel for these things.)

    But I appreciate his analysis here, less his labels. The easy assumption that "I" would, of course! have done the right thing. Yeah, right. None of us knows what we would have done. Rickey and Branca (and some others not mentioned here) are the more remarkable for being so few. Scott takes them for granted in his easy assumption of his own rectitude.

    1. So Scott gives Branca and Reese credit for "decency and courage" but notes properly that it was put in proper proportion so the story was still about the courage and decency of Robinson, not about the white teammates who "saved" him by gracefully accepting an extremely talented player on their team.

      And Somerby finds something to criticize all liberals in that.

    2. They were simple, common gestures that consumed about two seconds. In that sense they were very, very easy. I took that to be his meaning, not to demean either nor to condescend. His better words would have been "common, simple," but nobody not looking under every nook and cranny for examples to promote an overarching narrative would see it that way.

  7. My father was a friend of Branch Rickey's and enormously proud of Rickey's shepherding in Robinson and other blacks. He felt that Rickey wasn't given enough credit by the Civil Rights movement for all the effort he put in - perhaps a white man's view, perhaps similar to Somerby's sympathy for Blanca and others who did the right thing but whose actions might be trivialized from a 2013 view.
    Anyway, it was an amazing time and chapter in our history.

    The role of LBJ working with MLK was trivialized in the 2008 election, but real people with real brains understand the difficulties and complexities in the world, that there are a lot of strong, brave (and sometimes conflicted) actors in our major societal turning points. Jackie Robinson was great - as a player, as a person. Perhaps not as accepting of the ridicule & abuse as Rickey was asking for, but he performed the role great, they made it through this episode achieving the prize - equal treatment of blacks in the majors and an example for all walks of life, which didn't just happen with the 1947 season - it took place in Curt Flood's free trade effort, in black managers, in black upper management. Robinson and other players black and white and Rickey and other owners/upper managers/coaches like Durocher all did their part to make this a great American success. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, one of the few times I've been truly proud of America.

    1. "The next day we had a workout and I was in the locker room when Jackie walked in. I walked over and shook his hand. ‘Welcome aboard.’

      "All I could think was can he help us win the pennant, can he help us win games. I didn’t think about the color of his skin because I lived on a block that was the United Nations of all – four black families, about nine families of Italian extraction, two Irish, two German, two Jewish. So it was a League of Nations on my block. Blacks, I played with them. Went in their house, they came into mine. Seeing Jackie meant nothing special or different to me."

      But Branca realized how important Robinson was to society.

      “Jackie was the first to break the color barrier, not just for baseball, but for the whole country and eventually the world. So he was a leading man," Branca said. "Being first is the toughest.

      "What he did had to be totally out of character. [Dodgers GM Branch Rickey] said, don’t get into any arguments or any fights. Behave yourself, for three years. I knew how Jackie was, totally out of character. He was feisty, he was fiery, he was competitive. But he turned the other cheek, like it says in the Bible, he just turned the other cheek for three years."

    2. I'm struggling to imagine how Branch Rickey could possibly be given and MORE credit for breaking the color barrier.

      Rickey's contributions to the game of baseball are vast, and include the creation of the modern minor league farm system.

      But you mention Rickey to most people and if they remember him at all, the first thing they think of he is the guy who signed Jackie Robinson and broke the color barrier.

  8. So, once again, never get your history from movies.
    And just to prove it, check out The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Jackie Robinson http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042609/?ref_=sr_1
    Turns into a propaganda film for the Korean War at the end, but it was made much closer to the actual events (1950) so it's angles and inaccuracies create a different spin.

  9. As ever, Bob fiercely patrols and regulates the boundaries of any discussion of race.

  10. As ever, Bob fiercely patrols and regulates the boundaries of any discussion of race.

  11. "We liberals..."

    What do you mean "we"....?

  12. Bob's benevolent "To Kill A Mockingbird" version of southern racism ( a few bad apples, nothing really worse than in the north) is mimicked by Scott; but he can't go along with the notion that white decency took guts. He's right on the latter point, but only because he's wrong on the former.

  13. Replies
    1. More incoherency, please, Greg. We know you can!!!

  14. Scott's "disproportionate" comment I would think may be in reference to the criticism Hollywood has sometimes received for it's handling of civil rights/African American subject matter. "Mississippi Burning", for one, comes to mind with it's near total focus on the supposed kindly and heroic white FBI agents who save the day.

  15. Yes, it is a general rule that folks congratulate themselves (Scott does it wonderfully, subtly, here) for being "better than that" when looking at past racism.

    We only object when it's Somerby who takes note of it.