The stadium Robinson built

The stadium Robinson built

April 12th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

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.