Minnesota baseball fans who have visited Target Field are familiar with the lineup of retired numbers hanging near the left field foul pole — all belonging to Twins, except for one: No. 42.
Major League Baseball retired the number for all of its teams in 1997 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first man to break the color barrier in the big leagues when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The long, suffering road that Robinson walked toward acceptance and eventual stardom is the subject of “42,” a new film opening April 12 and starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers who bucked the racial prejudice of his day by offering Robinson a contract.
The movie, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential,” “A Knight’s Tale”), chronicles Robinson’s early days as a standout player in the Negro leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he catches the attention of Rickey, who becomes convinced that Robinson is the right man to change history.
The Dodgers executive tells Robinson he’s looking for a talented ballplayer, one with guts — not guts to fight back against the racial slurs and taunts that inevitably would come his way, but one “who’s got the guts not to fight back,” knowing that retaliation would doom Robinson’s — and Rickey’s own — chances for success.
Boseman, perhaps best known for his roles in television dramas, turns in a fine performance as the future Hall-of-Famer who endured the South’s Jim Crow laws, a petition against him signed by some Dodgers teammates, racial taunts by other players and managers, and even threats against his life.
Through it all, Robinson draws on the encouragement of Rickey, wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie) and black sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who recommended Robinson to the Dodgers and traveled with him during his rookie season.
Ford is in fine form as Rickey, who supports Robinson despite the pressures to remove him from the team. Rickey’s motivations for signing Robinson are complicated. Clearly, Rickey sees the opportunity to sign a talented ballplayer who can help lead the team to a World Series and make a good deal of money for the club in the process.
But Rickey also is motivated by something deeper — a sense of justice and his Christian faith. In one scene Rickey, a Methodist, tells Robinson that, like Jesus, he must be strong enough to turn the other cheek when faced down by his enemies.
In another scene, when Herb Pennock, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, threatens to boycott a game if Robinson plays, Rickey loudly takes him to task: “Someday you’re going to meet God. And when he inquires as why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
More than baseball
The movie conveys obvious lessons about the injustices of racism, but it also offers another lesson for Catholics who struggle at times with a culture that promotes values at odds with the faith — that sticking to one’s own values and persisting in doing what is right, like Robinson and Rickey did, can eventually transform the surrounding culture for the better.
“42” comes with the disclaimer that it is “based on a true story,” leaving one to assume the writers took some liberties with the facts and may have glossed over some of the warts and complexities of the real-life Robinson and Rickey. But it’s still a worthy retelling of a truly inspirational story.
And, if you happen to be watching the Twins play the Anaheim Angels at Target Field April 15 — annually marked as Jackie Robinson Day — you’ll see that every player is wearing No. 42 in his honor. Baseball and our country owe a debt of gratitude to Jackie Robinson. The day and the movie are a fitting tribute.