Few pastimes reflect Americana like baseball. Referred to as The National Pastime since 1856, it is highly representative of our nation in more ways than recreation- its business and politics too are influenced by fan demographics and demands. It is a cultural aspect of us that reflects how we think, work, and play, and its history runs parallel to ours as we’ve made progress, gone to war, and made do. Each moment in baseball’s history provides a unique portrait of America that is filled with both glory and dirt, and in some ways, never more so than during times of emerging diversity.
When speaking of Jackie Robinson’s story, many might first think of the glory: the distinction of being the first black man invited to play in the major leagues under the Noble Experiment. But for Robinson, it was the dirt of the experience that left a mark. The man who played a key role in Civil Rights and helped to revolutionize baseball would never feel true success as he believed he would always be a “black man in a white world.”
With a new movie about Robinson hitting theaters, we thought it would be a great opportunity to feature his stirring autobiography, “I Never Had it Made”. The following excerpt well summarizes the overall tone of the book, which highlights both his success and personal trials as a superlative athlete who, despite his performance, was constantly pelted with racist abuse and degradation from fans and players alike.
“But on that historic day in 1947*, the air was sparkling and the sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words poured from the stands. However, as I wrote these words twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the national anthem. I have learned that I remain a black man in a white world. I never had it made.”
While young folks today might find that to be an unpatriotic, or at least ungrateful statement, it was a different time and place for Afrcan-Americans in the United States. Robinson’s choice to participate in the Noble Experiment was a bold civil rights move that pre-dated Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech by some 16 years. In his autobiography, Robinson’s true heroism is reflected not by his batting average, but in his willingness to put his reputation and pride aside for the greater outcome.
The film “42” has been touted as another “history lesson” movie. With some high-profile cast-members, it has so far received positive reviews, and places some of the spotlight on Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), then president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was praised for his forward-thinking ability and the conceptualization of The Noble Experiment. Of course, a film is always the interpretation of screen-writers, directors, editors, and producers. Like any work of art, it provides plenty of fodder for critics, who jump to scrutinize the accuracy of its portrayals.
So which is better, the book or the film? While we are partial to our books here at the Old Library, we recognize that a film is a resource of value to the literary community, serving a beneficial role in creating or refreshing public interest on any given topic. The release of “42” is well-timed for a resurgence of focus on Jackie Robinson in particular. Beyond simply being a tax deadline, this past April 15th marked the 66th anniversary of the first time a black man set foot on an MLB field, Opening Day, 1947. It was officially dubbed “Jackie Robinson Day” in 2004.
We are curious, dear readers, which would you prefer to explore first? The artistically interpreted period film? Or the autobiography and first-hand, personal account? We invite you to come and check out our featured copy of the latter, whichever order suits you 🙂
Wishing sunny days ahead, with plenty of time for pursuit of your favorite pastimes- reading, baseball, or otherwise!
*Robinson is referring to Opening Day of the world series, 1947, his first major league appearance. Of interesting note, Robinson was honored as recipient of the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year award the same year.