Born in 1936, I grew up in New York City during the grand era of Baseball in New York. We had three major league teams, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers (both in the National League), and the hated (that is if you rooted for either of the first two) New York Yankees in the American League. I was born in 1936, the same year that the great "DiMag" (Joe DiMaggio) broke in with the Yankees. (I did not know it until many years later, but DiMaggio had to endure many an anti-Italian epithet in his early years.) Although not yet a fan at age 9, in 1946 I was aware of the dash around the bases from first to score on a single by Enos "Country" Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series for them over the Boston Red Sox. (Slaughter, a Southern racist, would in 1947 feature in Robinson's baseball life and the movie.) It was also in that year that I became aware of Jackie Robinson, signed by the Dodgers and assigned to play with their top minor league team, the Montreal Royals. But my knowledge of that fact came from more political than baseball awareness.
I grew up in a left-wing household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was what was known as "Red Diaper Baby." (I still have a few friends who shared that moniker. Unlike too many of our compatriots who chose the easy road to the Right in US politics [and for some, a quite lucrative road it became one might add], some of us did stay true to our birthright, and we, I must say, are proud of it.) At any rate, in those days, during and just after World War II, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA, The Daily Worker, was in my home every day.
Now, as a kid, I can make no claim to have read the sometimes complex, and sometimes very rapidly shifting news perspectives and political analyses. But like many a kid, I did read the sports pages. And so, I read two great sports columnists named Bill Mardo and Lester Rodney. (I was privileged to meet them many years later at a magnificent three-day sports history symposium to honor the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Jackie Robinson in the Big Leagues put on by my good friend and Columbia College classmate, and great U.S. social historian, Prof. Joseph Dorinson of the History Department at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. And thanks, Joe, for providing me with some of the material for this column.) It was through Messrs. Mardo and Rodney that I learned of the campaign for the integration of major league baseball that beginning in the 1930s had been mounted by the Communist Party of the United States, in cooperation with such leading civil rights organizations of the day as the NAACP and A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
And so we come to the current movie. Left-wing reviewers, like Dave Zirin who writes for The Nation as well as other sites, have found much to criticize politically (click here) in the film. And I agree with them on that score. For example (surprise, surprise) the role of the CPUSA and specifically of The Daily Worker and Lester Rodney and Bill Mardo, in the baseball integration campaign gets no mention at all. Nor does the fact that while Robinson lined up against the black-listed Paul Robeson during the McCarthy Era (when Robinson was in the game), he later came to support Robeson as well as, for example, the African-American protesters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But this film is not really about politics and it is not primarily about baseball either (although many of the baseball scenes are very well done). It is about US racism in the immediate post-war era. It is also about the incredible strength of a man who was the first African-American player in a sport that had a history of open racism going back to the days of Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings in 1883.
As is well known, Robinson was chosen by the Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey as much his potential to be able to stand up --- in total silence --- to the racism that Rickey knew would be hurled at him in that first year, as for his intelligence and his projected baseball ability. The movie shows: the racist taunts from the stands that greeted Robinson in every ball park he played in (including in the beginning, the Dodgers' Ebbets Field); the whole team being thrown off a plane in the South by a reservationist because Jackie's wife, Rachel Robinson, had the nerve to use the "white" rest-room at the terminal; Enos Slaughter's intentional spiking of Robinson in a play at first base; Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, standing in front of his team's dugout hurling racist slander at Robinson when he was at bat; Dixie Walker of the Dodgers, who started a petition trying to get other players to boycott the game whenever Robinson played (the petition got nowhere and Walker, who happened to be a fine outfielder, was traded away by Rickey the following year); Fritz Ostermueller, a pitcher for the Dodgers who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates during that first season by Rickey in part because of his racist attitude towards Robinson, and then as a Pirate went on to bean Robinson long before any baseball players wore helmets.
This is where the strength of the film lies. Indeed the central point of the film is that it is a metaphor for the worst of the outcomes of the U.S. Civil War: the persistence of the doctrine of white supremacy that underlay slavery that has in the 150 years since the War's end gone on to poison the minds of some in every corner of our great nation. Jackie Robinson triumphed because he was a fine ballplayer and an even finer person, able to overcome both the racism and loneliness that went with being the first. The Major Leagues have of course been integrated ever since and some of its greatest ballplayers in addition to Jackie have been African-American. But the stain of racism still is spread across the country, typified by that Tea Party member who, at a recent GOP town hall meeting somewhere in the South started going on about how the slaves "really had it good," being clothed, housed and fed, "donchaknow."
One wonders if it is going to take a Second Civil War to finally extirpate this cancer from our national body politic.