By Fred McKissack
Early in the film “42,” Dodgers owner Branch Rickey is asked why he’s willing to step over major league baseball’s unwritten line against signing black players. The answer, delivered by Harrison Ford with that sublime, impish smile of his, is: pure capitalism. Whites and blacks all carry the same color money.
The profit motive is the American way, right?
It is a way, but it’s not the only way.
Sometimes the personal motivation, born from a moral philosophy, can guide us to the better angels of our nature.
“42” is a tale of two honorable men, and those that followed them, from teammates to wives, choosing hope rather than succumbing to fear.
Thankfully, filmmaker Brian Helgeland doesn’t let Rickey’s money-solves-everything argument stand alone. Instead, Helgeland consistently referred back to how Rickey’s New Testament faith coincided so much with Jackie Robinson’s. That faith is put to the test in a heartbreaking scene in the dugout tunnel, where everyone senses how hard it would be to lift the suffocating veil of race off the nation’s pastime.
Weight of racism
In another poignant scene, Rickey recalls how a teammate of his at Ohio Wesleyan University, Charlie Thomas, was crushed under the weight of racism. This offers a glimpse into the past, when other great black baseball players had their dreams choked by hatred, fear, and envy. George Stovey, for example, was probably the best pitcher of the 19th century, who starred in both the Eastern and International leagues before baseball firmly segregated itself away from African-American players.
Rickey had a chance to do something that he couldn’t do for his friend back at Ohio Wesleyan. He had a chance not to redeem the past, but to light the way for the future.
Money would be made, but at least for this singular moment in history, Rickey’s decision and Robinson’s often lonely path were rooted in something deeper than capitalist enterprise. In the end, their righteous campaign won over a team, a borough, and a nation.
It should be noted that Charlie Thomas went on to become a successful dentist, and he and Rickey remained friends until Rickey’s death in 1965. Racism knocked Thomas down, but like Robinson and so many other black men and women of the time, he got back up, dusted off, and pressed onward and upward.
In an average life, rarely is one asked to be like Jackie Robinson. It’s not that we’re post-racial, but there are a dwindling number of racial “firsts” to cross. Still, the veils that separate us by race, gender, and sexual orientation are so much thicker than they ought to be in a country that supposedly values liberty, freedom, and fair play.
Do we have the guts and faith of Robinson and Rickey to see hope and seek justice?
Theirs is the real American way. It’s a story worth more than just honoring, but following in our daily lives.
McKissack is a writer based in Indiana. His latest book is “Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love.” He wrote this for the Progressive Media Project; distributed by MCT Information Services.
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