I don’t remember ever going to a movie on opening day, in fact I normally wait so long, I don’t go at all. But 42, the compelling story of the integration of baseball led by Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, grabbed my attention and did not disappoint. In fact, as some great one liners popped out throughout, I surprised myself by spontaneously leading the theater crowd in applause at one point. Fortunately, I was joined by others.
What’s so great about 42? Bottom line, it is the impact of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on culture. Yes, Christians were (and some still are) tragically complicit in the old racism of America, But it was not secular progressives who integrated baseball. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was the driving force behind Branch Rickey who was determined to end the barring of some of the best athletes from America’s game. And it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ that made it possible for Jackie Robinson to withstand the the pressure and the temptation to lash out at those who so severely demeaned him.
Rickey decided it was time to end a great evil. He looked for an athlete who shared Gospel values, who would fight the inevitable racial epithets, not with violence or even angry words, but with with an incomparable strength, “I”m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Jackie Robinson was that man. He was not raised in the old south, but in Pasadena, California. He was a World War II veteran. He was a standout athlete at UCLA. But what made Robinson the man to successfully integrate baseball was his Christian faith. When he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in the old Negro League in 1945, Robinson’s faith made him a laughing stock because he refused to live like his “whiskey drinking and promiscuous teammates,” and unashamedly voiced his commitment to save sex until marriage. He adopted a life long habit of kneeling by his bed to pray before going to sleep. In a later interview, he said of this nightly ritual, “It’s the best way to get closer to God, and a hard-hit ground ball.”
Rickey signed Jackie because he believed Robinson possessed the necessary strength of character. Rickey reminded him that “turn the other cheek” from the Sermon on the Mount was a necessary requirement. When asked how could this possibly work, Rickey responded, “…Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.”
But it sure had every reason to go wrong. 42 is painful to watch because of the grossly evil and brutal racial slurs, the constant taunting, the over the top attempts to injure Jackie, many of which could have been deadly. His own teammates rejected him, threatening to quit if he played. But Branch Rickey called their bluffs. Robinson played through the abuse. Teammates like Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese began to come around as they witnessed courage and integrity under fire. Debate continues as to when and where it happened, but Pee Wee Reese responded to abusive fans in Cincinnati or Philadelphia by walking across the diamond and putting his arm of support around Robinson, silencing the crowd.
Robinson was the 1947 Rookie of the Year, and before his career ended, a perennial All Star, played in six World Series, was a World Series winner and a member of the Hall of Fame. He is the only player to have his number retired for all of major league baseball; except each year on April 15, when every player wears 42 in his honor What Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson did opened the door for Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and hundreds more top athletes to take their rightful place. But even more, it models the teaching of Jesus, the non-violent confrontation later adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. that changed the nation.
This film is PG 13 because of the racial slurs. It has many examples of misusing God’s name, a violation of the 3rd commandment, that should always be disturbing to hear. But it is generally faithful to history. I commend it as the best film I’ve seen in a long time.
The day after a cowardly terrorist attack in Boston on the day of the Boston Marathon, may we be encouraged by two truly courageous Americans, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, who together lived out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Several great commentaries are out there, including Jackie Robinson: Faith in Himself — and in God by Chris Lamb in the Wall Street Journal; and Jackie Robinson and the Pattern of Jesus, a blog post by David Mathis on the Desiring God website.