Before he triumphed over prejudice, Jackie Robinson triumphed over himself.
The signal achievements of the pioneering baseball star, whose story is recounted in the top-grossing biopic "42," were perseverance and self-control. In the face of hatred from fans and opposing players, he showed no anger. In response to isolation from his teammates, he betrayed no self-pity. He went out every day and swung the bat and ran the bases and fielded his position, and displayed the character that his detractors lacked. He was the gentleman, they were the haters, the rubes, the rotten teammates.
"42" is a paean to discipline and to an ethic that has eroded badly in American sporting life, and in our national life in general: "Please, don't express yourself or feel sorry for yourself, don't make excuses, don't worry about what someone else is doing or saying, just go out and do your job." In Jackie Robinson's circumstances in 1947 the year he broke into the big leagues and the focus of the film adherence to this quotidian standard constituted notable courage.
The first meeting between Robinson and Branch Rickey, when the team honcho broached making him a Brooklyn Dodger, with all the pressure and abuse that would entail, is one of the most mythogenic episodes in baseball history. Rickey shouted insults at Robinson and demanded to know how he would respond to such provocation. Robinson asked if Rickey wanted a player who lacked the guts to fight back. Rickey responded, "I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
The two men were Methodists and discussed the example of Christ, although Robinson hadn't excelled at turning the other cheek at the humiliations of Jim Crow-era America. As Jonathan Eig writes in his book Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, Robinson grew up without a father, and his mother worked as a maid in Pasadena, Calif. When as a boy a white girl taunted him with a racial epithet, he called her a "cracker" right back. The girl's father and Robinson ended up throwing stones at one another.
As a young man stationed at Camp Hood in Texas during World War II, he got court-martialed. One day, Lt. Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus when the driver told him to, and exploded in rage when the driver called him "n-." He was arrested, but eventually cleared of all charges.
Rickey hadn't sought out a shrinking violet. "He wanted someone big enough and strong enough to intimidate," Eig writes, "and someone intelligent enough to understand the historic nature of his role." We never would have heard of Robinson, of course, if he hadn't been a supremely gifted athlete (Rickey wanted to win the pennant, as well as do right). But baseball history is full of those; it is Robinson's dignity when confronted with so many indignities that sets him apart.
Baseball then had a distinctively Southern flavor that could make even players who were white ethnics feel uncomfortable. A contingent of Robinson's own teammates wanted to boycott him, and so did rival players. He couldn't stay in some of the team's hotels. He got death threats. In a game early in the season, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman and his players viciously abused him. Robinson envisioned throwing his bat down and attacking his tormentors. During all of this, he slumped and thought about quitting, but kept on going, and eventually his talent spoke louder than words.
A legendary image memorialized in a bronze statue outside the ballpark of the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones is of Kentucky-born Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese draping his arm around Robinson on the field, in a gesture of support and in a rebuke to hostile fans. It may or may not have happened that way. But it's hard to make a statue to the essence of Robinson's accomplishment, to the lonely resolve one at-bat and one inning at a time.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.