Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

Commentary

April 23, 2013

Jackie Robinson's achievement

Before he triumphed over prejudice, Jackie Robinson triumphed over himself.

The signal achievements of the pioneering baseball star, whose story is recounted in the top-grossing biopic "42," were perseverance and self-control. In the face of hatred from fans and opposing players, he showed no anger. In response to isolation from his teammates, he betrayed no self-pity. He went out every day and swung the bat and ran the bases and fielded his position, and displayed the character that his detractors lacked. He was the gentleman, they were the haters, the rubes, the rotten teammates.

"42" is a paean to discipline and to an ethic that has eroded badly in American sporting life, and in our national life in general: "Please, don't express yourself or feel sorry for yourself, don't make excuses, don't worry about what someone else is doing or saying, just go out and do your job."

In Jackie Robinson's circumstances in 1947 - the year he broke into the big leagues and the focus of the film - adherence to this quotidian standard constituted notable courage.

The first meeting between Robinson and Branch Rickey, when the team honcho broached making him a Brooklyn Dodger, with all the pressure and abuse that would entail, is one of the most mythogenic episodes in baseball history. Rickey shouted insults at Robinson and demanded to know how he would respond to such provocation. Robinson asked if Rickey wanted a player who lacked the guts to fight back. Rickey responded, "I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."

The two men were Methodists and discussed the example of Christ, although Robinson hadn't excelled at turning the other cheek at the humiliations of Jim Crow-era America. As Jonathan Eig writes in his book Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, Robinson grew up without a father, and his mother worked as a maid in Pasadena, Calif. When as a boy a white girl taunted him with a racial epithet, he called her a "cracker" right back. The girl's father and Robinson ended up throwing stones at one another.

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