Monday, April 15, 2013
Reviews have been mixed on "42", the new biopic of Jackie Robinson (really of about two years or so of Robinson's life). Critics have particularly decried the film's cartoonish and simplistic take (and white rather than black perspective) on racism and race relations. As one commentator put it, "someone took the racial politics of 'The Help', combined it with the baseball of "A League of Their Own", and put it on top of "Mississippi Burning'." Another commentator described the move as "Jackie Robinson 101", telling the very basic story in the simplest terms.
It is a point of pride for baseball that its integration was on the leading edge of the Civil Rights Movement. A little more than a year after Robinson's debut, Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which called for "equality of treatment and opportunity" in the military and ultimately led to the integration of the military.
Is it a coincidence that these were among the first two institutions to integrate? Here is one thought: Both are top-down, hierarchical, non-inidividualistic institutions, in which commands from the top are strictly followed (the military analogy is more common in football, but it still works for baseball, especially the baseball of the Reserve Clause, one-year contracts, and no union of 1947). Both also are monopolistic--this was the only place to go to serve in the military (a legal obligation back then) or to play professional baseball at the highest level. Integration can take hold, at least somewhat formally, in institutions such as these because any individual objections are overcome by the command from above to follow orders and deal with it or go do something else. Christopher Meloni has drawn praise for his portrayal of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, particularly a scene (drawn from actual events) in which he told a team meeting that Robinson was going to help the team win (and thus help everyone make money), which was all that matters, so everyone else needed to get on board.
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