Branch Rickey is my hero.
Leo Durocher is my hero.
Eddie Stankey is my hero.
Those are names that I never figured would become heroic figures in my world view, but after watching the movie 42, I've shifted and elevated them in my catalogue of standards.
The film, in case you are unaware, is about Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball during the summer of 1947. I've come to see that moment in time as perhaps one of the seminal events in America's Civil Rights movement, the place where America, in starts and fits, turned a corner — coming as it did just 82 years after the end of the Civil War, America's other seminal Civil Rights moment.
In my youth, my father told me about Jackie Robinson and the hell that Robinson had to endure while breaking baseball's color barrier. We lived in Pennsylvania then, just an hour from Philadelphia, and dad told me about the vile reaction of then Phillies manager Ben Chapman to Robinson's presence in the game.
The movie illustrates this moment until it has you squirming in your seat. You might find yourself thinking, yeah, well, this was a different time, a different era, and then you squirm that this could happen at all.
Isn't that the point of movies, to make you feel something?
What dad didn't tell me is why Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, picked that point in time to change attitudes (the movie suggests that Rickey, played with verve by a wonderfully aging Harrison Ford, missed an opportunity as a younger man to make a difference. He wasn't going to miss this one). What I never considered was how Rickey's decision affected so many others, whether they wanted social change to happen or not.
At least as it is depicted in the movie, Robinson (played spectacularly by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman) faces his trial with remarkable restraint and courage, while Rickey faces his with foresight and conviction. What a team.
Others come along for the ride. Leo Durocher, as manager of the Dodgers, is charged with quelling a potential mutiny in the Dodger locker room. A fed-up Eddie Stankey confronts Chapman in the middle of a ballgame. Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese, in perhaps a moment of legend building, puts his arm around Robinson's shoulder between innings of a game in Cincinnati (there is some question about that. No photos exist of the moment, but some remember that picture in time actually occurring in 1948, not 1947, and in Boston, not Cincinnati. But it doesn't really matter.)
The movie, as a period piece, gets a lot of things right. Ebbetts Field and other fabled palaces of baseball get astounding CGI resurrection. The clothes, the uniforms, the cars, the baggy bases, the sweaty locker rooms are all there.
So are the heroes.
Not the least of whom is Jackie Robinson.