Monday, February 18, 2013

President's Day Double Feature: Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

(Editor’s Note: Time for the third annual President’s Day Double Feature! Presidents Day consolidated Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday into one all-purpose holiday nobody but the gov’ment gets off.  For the past three years, I’ve done two pieces on this day to honor “the father of our country and a buncha cullud folks named Washington,” and “the Great Emancipator and a literal Log Cabin Republican.” Usually, I take on movies with topics they knew something about: slavery, bureaucracy, and capitalism have all been topics of the Pres Day Double Feature. This year, I chose a topic I thought only Lincoln would know about, but it turns out I may be mistaken.)

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves* and won an Oscar**, but I wonder if he ever swung a bat in a baseball game. According to Wikipedia, the first game of baseball as we know it was played in Hoboken, NJ in 1846, when Lincoln was 37 years old. The Baseball Hall of Fame, which I have frequented several times, is located in Cooperstown, NY courtesy of the “Abner Doubleday Origin Myth.” Because of that myth, Hoboken got screwed out of bragging rights and the Hall of Fame location, which is probably for the best. There would be no place to park if the Hall were in Hoboken. As it stands, Hoboken has a better shot of being visited by Frank Sinatra*** than the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Washington was long dead by 1846, so he would have known nothing about baseball. Or did he? In 1791, when George was still around, the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts made reference to prohibiting the game of baseball from being played in certain areas. Perhaps this is not the same exact game of baseball that employs Derek Jeter and bans Pete Rose, but it’s possible Washington may have known of the concept of baseball. With such a rich and ever-shifting history, it’s no wonder why baseball is considered “America’s Pastime.”

How does that saying go? “It’s as American as baseball, apple pie and Mom.” If that were truly the case, then baseball would have been played by Blacks and Whites, separate and together. And that WAS the case, at least until 1889 when the game became segregated. I find it fascinating to learn that most sports were not originally segregated until some racist asshole realized they weren't. Football, for example, had Black players and even coaches before its segregation. That’s a topic for another time, one that the NFL hopes will never come for you. Visit the Football Hall of Fame and see if you find anything radical about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. [Ed. note: There's a bunch of info at the HOF now.] Yes, that Woody Strode.

At least the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t afraid to note the separation, in part because the story of how baseball became integrated is well-woven into the fabric of American history and lore. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, son of Georgia sharecroppers, all around sportsman proficient in multiple disciplines, and former UCLA student-athlete, integrated major league baseball in 1947. Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey brought Robinson up through his farm team in Montreal and into the professional spotlight the same year that Washington and Strode integrated football. All three went to UCLA, making that university at the time the epicenter of Uppity Sports Negroes Who Apparently Didn’t Know Their Place. This might explain why a certain political party thinks California is Gomorrah.

But I digress.

Three years after breaking the color barrier in baseball, Robinson heeded the call of Hollywood to play himself in the movie version of his life. If Babe Ruth could play himself in Pride of the Yankees, why not Robinson? The Jackie Robinson Story was released in 1950, when Robinson was still an active baseball player. While certainly no actor, Robinson acquits himself nicely beside actors like Ruby Dee (who looks stunning as Robinson’s wife) and Minor Watson. He does a far better job than Muhammad Ali did playing himself 27 years later in The Greatest. I’ll pick on Ali’s acting next week, provided you don’t tell him where I live.

The Jackie Robinson Story is something of a whitewash. It has a patriotic, self-serving “we’re a better country now because we did this” vibe that I’ll admit drove me batshit. It leaves out crucial information that would make America itself look bad. For example, it shows Robinson enlisting in the Army and rising to the ranks of second lieutenant, but conveniently leaves out that he was almost court-martialed for objecting to racial discrimination. Whenever something important happens, a familiar patriotic ditty plays on the soundtrack. The narrator at the beginning and the end of the film tells us of the importance of Robinson’s achievement, but it is way too congratulatory to an America that would treat Robinson as an equal on the diamond but nowhere else. Robinson’s presence in The Jackie Robinson Story goes a long way toward tempering the film’s occasional lapses into propaganda.

In its defense, The Jackie Robinson Story does show some of the torment Robinson went through once he turned pro. Minor Watson’s Rickey tells Robinson he wants a player who can take the abuse without fighting back. Robinson agrees to do so, for the greater good. But I wondered how he dealt with it. Robinson’s family was the only Black family in the area in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia, so racial threats and taunts had to become commonplace for him at an early age. But does one ever get used to them? Did the familiarity of the abuse help Robinson cope with Rickey’s request?

As a player, he went through an unimaginable amount of shit. Recreating some of these incidents must have either been business as usual or some form of exorcism/catharsis for Robinson. People threw stuff at him, called him everything but a child of God, and even threatened him after games. And those were the fans! Sportscasters and newspapers wrote derogatory articles. He was held to a higher standard than his White counterparts. (The film does a sideways glance at this by showing some sportscaster comments.) Fellow baseball players, including ones on his own team, didn’t want to play with him despite the fact that he was damn good at the game.

 In one scene, two fans heckle Robinson, using a helpless black cat as a prop. Robinson’s reaction to this felt so realistic I got chills. It was as if he were having flashbacks to this event’s actual occurrence. His anger gives way to concern for the animal. The film holds its gaze on Robinson holding the cat in the dugout, stroking its fur in a display of comfort he wishes someone would bestow upon him. I felt that scene in my core, and it made me so angry. What harm was there in Blacks and Whites playing sports together? I get the whole “don’t marry my daughter” thing, but why sports? What was the fucking purpose?

The filmmakers also give us a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who has “a change of heart.” When we first meet the thick-eyebrowed, dem dese and dose accented guy, he’s watching Robinson play with the Montreal farm team Rickey runs. He strikes up a conversation with some Klan members who plan to intimidate Robinson after the game. The Dodger fan says “I don’t like shines, and I don’t want one playing for my team.” Later, when Robinson is kicking ass and taking names at Ebbets Field, the guy starts cheering for the shine he didn’t want on his team. “Lookit what happened to youse!” says a bespectacled Brooklyn dame sitting next to him. The movie thinks this is progress, but I was reminded of the scene in Do The Right Thing where Mookie asks Pino about Michael Jordan. It’s OK to root for “the good ones” who get your team to the championship, but God forbid if they want to shit in the same public toilet you use!

I don’t want to be too harsh on The Jackie Robinson Story, simply because I’m viewing it from a different place and time than folks in 1950. It’s enjoyable as both a time capsule and a Hollywood biopic. In a way, it has to do what Jackie Robinson did. “Be good to the White folks,” says Purlie Victorious in Ossie Davis’ 1962 play, because, he implies, “they don’t know any better and they need to be taught of our worth.” It couldn’t have been easy, considering the amount of time and abuse it took. This makes me love Robinson even more than I did when I first encountered him, or rather, his statue. More on that in a second.

I did this piece for two reasons:

1. In April, Brian Helgeland’s film, 42, is  being released. Starring Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, 42 brings Robinson’s story to a new generation of moviegoers. I’d expect Boseman to be a better actor than Robinson, but he will lack the sheer verisimilitude of seeing Robinson play himself. I also hope that the film will do more to show the state of America at the time than director Alfred E. Green could in 1950. I haven’t seen 42 yet, but I can recommend spending 76 minutes with The Jackie Robinson Story to compare and contrast. I am very much looking forward to the new film.

2. Allow me this diversion. When I was a freshman in high school, I went on the first of my school’s annual “Activity Days.” This was a field trip where we all got together to play sports. I’ve mentioned before that I went to what could affectionately be called “the nerd high school” in Jersey City, but as I learned, there are jock nerds and nerd nerds. I was a nerd nerd, but I went to Activity Day anyway. It was held at Jersey City’s famous (and now gone) Roosevelt Stadium. The stadium had been slated for demolition by this time, a perfect coincidence for a public school having a function there. I had been to Roosevelt Stadium many times, but this particular day was the first time I heard mention of Jackie Robinson playing there.

That would have explained the statue of him at the stadium, but c’mon, I was 12 and not very observant. I was told that Roosevelt Stadium was the place where Robinson broke the color barrier for minor league baseball. Later, my own research and reading filled in the details. Robinson was on the Montreal Royals and they played the Jersey City Giants (farm team of Dodger rivals the New York Giants). It was the first time since 1889 that Blacks and Whites played baseball together professionally. This blew my mind because, as a kid, I didn’t think anything famous ever happened in Jersey City. It was constantly mocked in old movies, from Sweet Smell of Success (“me and my Jersey City brains!”) to Footlight Parade.

Plus, I lived in the ‘hood, so the concept of hometown fame was completely foreign to me. Shit happened across the Hudson in New York City, of course, but here? Nothing good happened on my street. At Activity Day in Roosevelt Stadium, all that changed. From that moment on, I became fascinated with Jackie Robinson. I’m glad The Jackie Robinson Story included this part of Robinson’s life in the film. The stadium is gone, but Robinson’s statue is now in front of the PATH terminal in Jersey City. It’s right across the street from where I saw so many movies growing up. For me, that’s the most appropriate place for it to be.

* but not in Mississippi until this month!
** Unless sabotage occurs, this will hold true.
*** Frank Sinatra hated Hoboken and vowed he'd never return. Of course, he's dead now, but still.

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