Jackie Robinson and the importance of ‘42’

The importance of 42

By James Forth 

With the Black Lives Matter movement being especially prevalent this year, and in light of the recent passing of Chadwick Boseman, a film that is significant to discuss during the celebration of Black History month is 42. Directed by Brian Helgeland, the film follows Jackie Robinson and his journey as an athlete as he breaks into the world of Baseball. 

This film is a beautiful narration of the struggles that a Black man faced in order to be accepted and allowed to flourish within a sport that was predominantly white, due to issues of segregation, racism and the Jim Crow law. We see Jackie Robinson’s struggle to gain acceptance and his determination to overcome the discrimination that he was faced with. This compelling story rightly depicts Robinson as a true hero, fighting for equality both on and off the field. 

Discrimination in Baseball

It is important to know that Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first Black athlete to play in the Major League Baseball Association. This was actually a man called Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.Walker was hugely respected as a player, but was never regarded as an equal and  in 1884, before playing a match away, Toledo received a letter threatening that if Walker was to attend this match then there would be ‘bloodshed’. It was this altercation, alongside many others, which led to Moses Fleetwood Walker eventually being cut from Major League Baseball.

These discriminatory events cemented systematic racism into the world of sport and continued to prevent Black athletes from performing. By 1887, the 12 teams of the Major League had seven Black baseball players. However, the international League owners then created an unwritten rule where the Major League could no longer sign Black players. These seven men were able to finish their contracts before eventually being cut from their teams. This unwritten rule continued to be implemented for sixty years until Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson in 1947. 

Jackie Robinson was a truly talented player

Jackie Robinson’s playing style was considered at the time to have been unorthodox. However, what Baseball players, managers and fans didn’t realise was that Robinson’s technique was going to be revolutionary in changing and shaping the game forever.

Robinson is remembered for how he moved around the bases by creeping from side to side, slowly edging his way towards the next base. He constantly kept his eyes on the pitcher and would torment them, not through racial slurs or violent threats like he had to endure on a daily basis, but through his plucky attitude and mesmerising movement. 

Before the pitcher had thrown the ball, Robinson was already running to the last base.

If the pitcher were to try and get him out by passing the ball back to his basemen, Robinson was able to get back to the base in time to remain safe and in the game, because of his immense speed and agility. Robinson’s erratic yet calculated style of play went on to discombobulate pitchers all over the League. 

Capturing Jackie’s essence

The actor who was to play Jackie Robinson needed to be able to portray the passion and determination that Robinson had to change the story of race and sport. Chadwick Boseman was, in my opinion, the perfect fit to bring this story to life. Boseman’s performance beautifully encapsulates Robinson’s emotional turmoil through his journey of fighting for equality, as well as showing us the tender and heartfelt side of his personal life.

Director Brian Hedgeland displays a truly inspirational scene based upon one of the games Jackie Robinson played; when Robinson goes up to bat and the Philadelphia Phillies manager, William Benjamin Chapman, is hurling racist abuse at him. In that moment the audience can clearly see the rage in Robinson’s eyes. Instead of fighting back, he turns around and walks into the dugout corridor. Suddenly transitioning from the crowded and loud stadium, we are taken into the corridor with Robinson and everything goes quiet.

All of a sudden we are left with our protagonist screaming and crying on the floor, breaking his bat on the wall and pouring out all of the anger and pain. Chadwick Boseman gives the audience this heart wrenching moment, where it’s just us and him in the dugout corridor, allowing us to empathise with Robinson to the highest level. However, the emotional rollercoaster continues when we see Robinson picking himself up, and after hearing some encouraging words from his general manager, he states “I’m gonna need a new bat” showing us that he is going to carry on playing no matter what.

Robinson’s journey brings us hope

Like Robinson, Boseman was also a true inspiration to so many people. He portrayed important Black figures in films such as James Brown (Get On Up – 2014), Thurgood Marshall (Marshall -2017) and the fictional character T’Challa, aka Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He showed children from all over the world that there is a superhero on the big screen with the same colour of skin as them. All the while, during the last four years of his life when he was still acting in these films, he was suffering from in silence from colon cancer and didn’t tell anyone. But just like Jackie, he fought on. He was the definition of an “actor’s actor” and a true hero. 

Every year on April 15th, the date that  Robinson was first signed to the Major League Baseball, players and fans from all around the world wear the number ‘42’ on the back of their jerseys to remember, commemorate and celebrate the achievements of Jackie Robinson. Although we have come a long way in the fight for true equality, it is apparent that racism is still infecting the world of sport, as well as our wider society. However, inspirational figures such as Jackie Robinson remind us that we need to keep moving forwards and past the ‘first base’ in this journey to end discrimination.