Baseball season begins with “42”

Major League Baseball’s 2013 season begins March 31 in Texas, with the Rangers taking on the Astros in Houston. Just one game that day, then everybody else hits the field on April 1.

But I’m looking forward to this bit of baseball memorabilia:

That’s Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53. (Really? When he was my age, he had been dead for four years?) He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956. And you can tell from the trailer that he put up with a lot of crap as the first African American in the Major Leagues.

I have to see this movie. Jackie Robinson is one of the transitional figure in American sports. And as far as I’m concerned, he marks the beginning of the modern baseball era. No MLB record counts if it happened before No. 42 went on the field for the Dodgers. Especially not the iconic baseball records: Babe Ruth’s 60 home run season and his 714 career home runs and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

The reason: Some of the best baseball players in America weren’t allowed to play when those records were set. Ruth, DiMaggio and every other player who set a record in the sport were competing against top athletes in most cases, but they were also on the field with guys who would have been in the minor leagues if baseball had been integrated.

I watched the “42” trailer and thought how edgy things felt. But then I remember the first Jackie Robinson movie.

That’s “The Jackie Robinson Story” from 1950 with Jackie Robinson and Ruby Dee. It explores his career up to his rookie year with the Dodgers, and it’s a pretty sanitized version of the times.

Yes there’s racism, but notice how there are no Southern accents in the movie. There’s rarely any indication of where the opposing teams are from, so as not to insult the 1950’s movie audiences from those regions. Branch Rickey refers to Robinson as “boy” an awful lot, which at the time wasn’t considered offensive, but today, really grates on you. Branch Rickey does an awful lot of the “baseball symbolizes the greatness of America” routine, but it would have been nice to note that he was a businessman, and his bottom line wasn’t racial equality, to win the pennant and get people into Ebbets Field.

And notice that there aren’t many shots of black people in the ballparks, which really is unusual because Jackie Robinson was an idol for black America at the time. There’s Ruby Dee being frightened off by a bunch of good old boys in the stands, and later in the movie, Jackie’s family shows up when the Dodgers win the pennant. In the latter scene, if you look close enough, there are two black people in the front row when the game is won. But black people lining up to get into the ballpark … it’s like it didn’t happen.

Robinson did put up with a lot of crap as a ballplayer, and the “turn the other cheek” limits Branch Rickey put on him must have pissed him off to no end. But he is a historic figure, and hopefully “42” will get the story right.