published Friday, April 12th, 2013

The stadium Robinson built

Can a stadium win best supporting actor?

While a social revolution unfolds on screen -- Jack Roosevelt Robinson, his fast bat and turn-the-other-cleat resistance versus 1940s racism -- our Engel Stadium gives backdrop to one of the richest stories in American history.

And looks perfect doing it.

"The stadium is definitely a character in the film," Richard Hoover, production designer of "42", told the New York Daily News.

It's about halfway into "42" -- the Robinson biopic premiering this week -- when you spot Engel disguised as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. (Later, it's the stadiums in Philly, Cincinnati and St. Louis).

Dugouts? Restored. Stands, full of fans. Infield, baseball brown. Outfield, heavenly green.

(I caught myself looking for Erlanger and the McDonald's arches behind left field).

And the stadium tunnel? Wait till you see that part.

Wednesday night, inside the nearly-every-seat-taken screening at the Majestic Theater, friends and supporters of the Engel Foundation cheered not once, twice but several times at the end of the two-hour-long film.

"I feel proud," one man said as the film ended.

The film -- your heart, like an up-elevator, lumps up in your throat throughout it -- carries a nostalgic beauty.

Old outfield signs (Ballantine ale), 1940s cars, suits and typewriters. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) uses an office chalkboard to keep up with league standings.

Billie Holliday sings. Abbott and Costello ask who's on first. Red Barber announces: He's so fast he could toss a lamb chop past a hungry wolf.

But the soul of the film belongs to Robinson and his hero's journey to become the first black American to play modern major league baseball.

It was 1947. He wore No. 42.

In the face of such hot racism -- I counted "nigger" 47 times in the film, most of them coming from the particularly vile mouth of Phillies manager Ben Chapman -- Robinson responded by not responding.

The unearned, undeserved suffering he faced -- death threats, fastballs to the head, social ostracization -- were met with dignity, courage and clutch baseball.

It's textbook nonviolence: You win over your enemy by taking the moral high ground.

"God built me to last," Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, says during the film.

Layered over the social landscape of today -- one spring training stop is Sanford, Fla., the city where Trayvon Martin was shot; other scenes are reminiscent of today's discussions on gay marriage and immigration -- the film's most powerful moment comes in the Engel tunnel.

Robinson, almost Christlike -- can you drink this cup? -- confronts the long road ahead of him.

"Everybody needs you," Rickey tells him.

Then, and now.

"It inspired me to stick up for others who are being treated the wrong way," said Christian Levy, a fifth-grader at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and a member of the RBI Kids, a summer-baseball league run by the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation. (He plays shortstop).

Our city owes a curtain call ovation to Janna Jahn and everybody else at the Engel Foundation for their hugely civic work in the rebirth of Engel.

(Engel has an open house this Saturday, from 1 to 4. Upcoming concerts. Shares of commemorative stock, for $150.)

One save, bottom of the ninth, to Jahn.

And one come-from-behind win to Engel Stadium. Here's to many more.

And one MVP award to Jack Robinson, who helped justice and freedom defeat racism and fear.


Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Lr103 said...

But why go through all that pain, suffering and humiliation just to play on a white team? Especially, when the "Negro" League Baseball was gaining popularity and white league baseball was on a serious down turn. The move to integrate baseball wasn't out of compassion or having suddenly grown a conscious or soul, nor finally coming to love thy fellow man who was darker. It was an economic move to breathe life back into a quickly declining white baseball league. The intergration of baseball basically put the Negro League out of business. Just like integrating businesses breathe new life into failing white businesses, while black businesses were flourishing and on the verge of going international. See: Black Wall Street, The 1928 Tulsa Oklahoma rioting. Integration basically destroyed many thriving black businesses. Not to say integration wasn't a good thing. At least not the original intent. However, it was a mixed bag where many who were already making great strides lost out big.

If all the pain, suffering and humiliation Robinson and others went through were meant to bring about such significant racial harmony and change, then why is America practically back at ground zero on matters of race, racism, bigotry, intolerance and racial hatred?

April 12, 2013 at 8:56 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

LR, you probably know why, because of Democratic and liberal polices enacted over the past several decades.

Cook, that would have been a decent column if not for Trayvon Martin being thrown in unnecessarily. I have no white guilt over it, you shouldn't either.

April 12, 2013 at 9:33 a.m.
Lr103 said...

And what policies might that be, Laughing@UBoy? Do tell? What policies have Democratic, liberals created that led to an excuse for increased racial hatred, intolerance and bigotry? Remember, excuse and justification or reasons are not the same.

April 12, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.
shen said...

Robinson died at the young age of 53. Wonder if all that stress he endured from racial hatred killed him? And what did it really accomplish? Racism, intolerance, bigotry and racial hatred is at an all time high primarily against African-Americans in 21St Century Amerika.

April 12, 2013 at 11:49 p.m.
Lr103 said...

Likely, shen. Robinson died of a heart attack on October 4, 1972. Having to endure all of that physical and verbal assault had to have eventually taken its toll physically, emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually and mentally. It may not have shown on the outside, all the while doing serious damage to the mind, body and soul.

I haven't been able to bring myself to go see the movie. For those of us, regardless of race, who lived through those periods and saw what was happening, whether it touched us personally or not, and felt powerless to intervene, the movie brings back painful memories for us as well as those who suffered. The things that happened to Robinson on the baseball field, many others like him had to endure on almost a daily bases. Robinson himself likely suffered just as much and more off the field as he did on. Now, in 21ST century America, that same hate seems to be making an eerily sneaky comback.

I'll likely take my family to go see the movie at some point, but I don't think I can just yet.

April 13, 2013 at 4:29 p.m.
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