Story of Jackie brought to life in '42'
"It's not every day you get to see a movie about the father of someone you know," a family friend pointed out to me.
It was Saturday afternoon -- it wasn't just "someone you know," it was a dear friend and mentor -- and the movie in question was Brian Helgeland's "42."
After 128 minutes in a darkened theater, I walked away with a profoundly deep understanding of one of America's true heroes.
I thought I knew a bit about Jack Roosevelt Robinson going into the movie theater. I'd won an essay contest started by his daughter, Sharon Robinson, in his memory. I could rattle off "Jackie's Nine" values: Courage, persistence, justice, determination, integrity, commitment, teamwork, excellence and citizenship. I knew all about how he lettered in four sports at UCLA, how he played for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. I knew about how he didn't want to play for the Monarchs: He wanted into Major League Baseball. I knew how Branch Rickey was the one to give him that chance, with the warning, "I don't want someone with the guts to fight back. I want someone with the guts to not fight back."
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Turns out, I didn't. I had an inkling of the racial abuse Robinson endured throughout the years, the death threats and the jeering in the stands and opposing dugouts. But there were other facets of the Robinson story I had no knowledge of. I had never heard of Wendell Smith, who broke barriers of his own without the glory. I didn't know how instrumental the now 90-year-old woman Jack affectionately called "Rae" was in her husband's career, or how she defied racism herself -- "42" shows her unabashedly entering an airport restroom marked "Whites Only."
"That is [like] her, to push the boundaries and to state what she feels. [My parents] had to do a lot of swallowing of their pride. That's truly her and that's still true of her," said Sharon Robinson, who accompanied her mother to the White House last week for a private screening of the movie.
Sharon -- who has carried on her father's legacy in her own right, as an author -- felt especially strongly about one scene in the movie.
It's the sole one that portrays her father's doubts and troubles in facing hecklers. In it, the great No. 42 can be seen smashing a bat against a wall and breaking down in tears.
"We all reach a point of frustration and think we can't continue, and we have to face up to it and then go beyond it. It's a great moment for all of us to see that none of this is easy, that it requires great sacrifice, and when you make a commitment to something, you need to follow through on it," Sharon Robinson said.
Possibly my favorite moment of the movie is one plastered across posters in theaters across America: Pee Wee Reese slinging his arm around Jackie Robinson with the words, "Someday maybe we'll all wear No. 42. Then they won't be able to tell us apart."
Of course, that's what everybody in Major League Baseball will be doing in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute. After Ken Griffey Jr., then with the Reds, requested and was granted permission by Selig to wear 42, the practice gradually became widespread around Major League Baseball, and now everyone wears it on April 15, baseball's Jackie Robinson Day.
Artistic license? Sure. But it works.
"Neither Pee Wee or my father remembered exactly what they said that day. That's why I think [director] Brian [Helgeland] did a great job in using that moment to advance the story without taking away from the integrity of the moment," Sharon said. "I didn't find a lot of artistic license. I really think they maintained the integrity of the story. It was quite authentic.
"They didn't embellish it or force their opinion on things, they just told the story. You are able to come out of there with your own thoughts on the subject come through, because you weren't told what to feel or to think.
"It's just amazing, and I'm thrilled with the end product. I feel like the work that we've done over the past 40-some years -- what my mother has done, what we've done with the Breaking Barriers [program], my writing -- it all evolved and this is the culmination.
"I've told the story many, many times to kids, but seeing it on the big screen just brings it to life. I hope they'll want to learn more about him, and continue to read and research, not just Jackie Robinson, but the times, the era, so that we will not repeat what happened some 66 years ago."
"42" is a good reminder for all of us. A lasting image of what our country used to be, and of one man who helped change it for the better, forever.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.