Jackie endured much in pursuit of equality
As movie details and teammate Erskine describes, Robinson lived up to the challenge
Aside from Opening Day, the release of "42" might generate the most buzz on this month's baseball calendar.
The film, starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and screen legend Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, chronicles the hatred, animosity and threats that Robinson endured as the player Rickey chose to break baseball's color line.
In one of the movie's most compelling scenes, and perhaps the game's most history-making conversation, Robinson asks, "Do you want a player that doesn't have the guts to fight back?"
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"No," Rickey declares. "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back."
"Give me a uniform, give me a number on my back and I'll give you the guts," Robinson says.
Today, "42" is displayed on outfield fences throughout baseball, at all levels, in tribute to Robinson's courage and impact on the game. Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera is the only player who still wears No. 42, and when he throws his last pitch later this year, the number will be retired for good.
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.
"A lot of people don't know it, but Jackie was under a three-year gag order," said former Dodgers hurler Carl Erskine, a Brooklyn teammate during nine of Robinson's 10 years in the big leagues. "Mr. Rickey told him if a black player got into any fights, this would destroy the effort. He was to say nothing; no retaliation, physically, verbally, nothing. That was remarkable. Some Negro League players thought Jackie wouldn't make it because of his temper.
"Mr. Rickey wanted him to have that kind of fire, but he couldn't show it. He wanted him to take it out on the diamond."
The animosity is well-documented, from beanballs and being spiked to the use of racial epitaphs, and in one instance, an opponent tossing a black cat on the field.
"Anything was fair game to upset the opponent," Erskine said. "But they found out Jackie was so good under pressure they finally backed off. They realized the more they got on him, the better he did."
In his first three years, Robinson sparked the Dodgers to two National League pennants, was named Rookie of the Year (1947) and Most Valuable Player ('49) after winning the batting title with a .342 average. During his decade with the Dodgers, Brooklyn won six NL flags, a World Series championship and was eliminated from two other pennant races on the season's final day ('50, '51).
However, Robinson knew his fight was bigger than baseball, Erskine says. Trophies and championships were fine.
"But I remember Jackie saying, 'That's not why I'm here,'" Erskine recalled. "He understood that what he was doing was going to be good for his whole race. He started the momentum for civil rights a decade before Mark Luther King [Jr.] came on the scene. Baseball was a vehicle."
Fittingly, parts of "42" were filmed at America's oldest ballpark, Rickwood Field, in Birmingham, Ala., where 50 years ago this May, commissioner of public safety Eugene "Bull" Connor unleashed attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on non-violent demonstrators fighting against segregation.
Robinson hung up his spikes after the 1956 campaign, but never stopped fighting for racial equality. He enjoyed fame, celebrity and financial success, but unlike some of today's mega-millionaire athletes, he used those things toward a higher end.
"I won't have it made until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America," he wrote in a New York Post column published on Aug. 22, 1960.
Erskine personally witnessed much of what Robinson went through. In the late 1940s and early '50s, a city ordinance prohibited blacks from staying overnight in Vero Beach, Fla., where the Dodgers held Spring Training. So after a day's workout, Robinson would have to go to nearby Gifford.
"Not only Jackie, but Campy [Roy Campanella], Don Newcombe and Joe Black," Erskine said.
One year, while heading north from Florida, the Dodgers played an exhibition game in Atlanta, which was a Minor League city at the time.
"The Klan picketed the hotel, and they wouldn't sell tickets to black fans," Erskine said. "They had to sit on a hill, a sort of levee beyond the right-field fence. Jackie got a threatening letter saying he was going to be shot if he took the field."
Robinson didn't live to see the most significant fruits of his labor, which others have kept building upon, long after his passing in 1972.
"I wish Jackie could come back to Atlanta today," Erskine said. "There's a statue of Hank Aaron outside the ballpark. They've had black mayors, plus look how many African-Americans have become governors, elected to Congress and of course, President Obama."
In Robinson's native Cairo, Ga., a small rural town just above the Florida Panhandle, more than 600 people gathered on March 16 to dedicate a new Jackie Robinson Ball Park and rename a local Boys & Girls Club in his honor. Dignitaries included Robinson's daughter, Sharon, former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield and Olympic basketball star Teresa Edwards.
Robinson's mother, a sharecropper, left Georgia for California because she knew what life would be like for her children in the South. Last month, Cairo Mayor Richard VanLandingham, a white man, presented Sharon Robinson with a key to the city.
"To the credit of America, we've made a huge turnaround for the better," Erskine said.
Paul Post is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.