As a child, 42 used to be my favorite number. After seeing the movie “42” about baseball’s Jackie Robinson, now I know why.
As a teenager I watched the "Huntley Brinkley Report." Being a nerd before there was such a word, I first heard about the Beatles not on "American Bandstand" from Dick Clark, but from Chet and David. It was also in the ’60s on NBC in black and white that I experienced the hatred of the blacks and the whites.
There in my own home I could suffer the police dog bites, feel the pressure of the fire hoses and the beating of the nightsticks inflicted on those protesting America’s bigotry.
It was in real color in 1964 that my family traveled from Arizona to the New York World’s Fair. Somewhere in the South, somewhere along the road around the back of a gas station, I saw the three restrooms and the two drinking fountains: Men, Women and Colored.
That is why there is both a disbelief and belief when those images of racial bigotry are projected today onto the giant screen. How could we as a nation be so cruel? I know we were. There will be those who will take umbrage with the implication that they were intolerant, insensitive or worse, un-Christian, just because they lived through that era.
Their limited protests are answered by a saying my mother posted on the family message board, the refrigerator. “Evil will prevail when good people do nothing.” A lot of good people did nothing.
That is why the story of Jackie Robinson is so powerful. He was the first African-American to play in the major leagues of our national pastime, baseball. His story is of unrestrained courage and incredible self-discipline. He was boycotted and ostracized by teammates, booed by so-called fans, and taunted by opposing managers. He was the physical target of fastballs, spikes and bean balls.
Through it all, Dodger No. 42 prevailed. He was not alone. It was the general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, stellarly portrayed by Harrison Ford, who led the way.
In a copyrighted article in the Boston Globe co-authored by Jackie’s widow, Rachael, and then-senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry, they quote Dodgers president Rickey, “(Robinson) was the target of racial epithets and flying cleats, of hate letters and death threats, of pitchers throwing at his head and legs, and catchers spitting on his shoes."
Mr. Rickey was a man of piety. His religious upbringing directed the rest of his life. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University, succeeding in sports. He was recruited by the Cincinnati Reds but was released when he refused to play on Sunday.
He went on to become the president and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey was instrumental in initiating the farm teams of minor league baseball to prepare young talent for the Big Show.
It was when he left Missouri for Brooklyn that he made baseball and American history. His selection of Robinson as his man was not accidental. It was based on his athletic talent but more on personality of strength. Could Robinson turn the other cheek? Could 42 display Christ-like calm amongst the Pharisees and Sadducees of the sports world? Could he stand the Romanesque punishment silently nobly?
Rickey’s confidence in Robinson and in his cause was summed up in the movie: “He’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”
For the rest of us, watching "42" can make us feel he might have been right. There are still so many other practices of ignorance, selfishness, weakness and just plain meanness that we have other opportunities to make things better.
There is still time for good people to do something even if we are not Methodists and our number is not 42.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a practicing physician for 30 years, and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He works as a hospitalist at Primary Children's Medical Center. He can be reached at [email protected].