We watched "42" for the first time the other night.
The Jackie Robinson biopic had been out since 2013, and we intended to catch it in theaters, then on television, but the timing never seemed to be right. If we had the time, it wasn't available, or it was 30 minutes in by the time we could sit down to see it.
Although we had read biographies since childhood of the first man to break the modern color barrier in Major League Baseball, we were interested in seeing the 21st-century treatment of the 1946-1947 events.
Plus, several of the scenes had been filmed at Engel Stadium, so we wanted to see how Chattanooga's former minor league ballpark was used. And the film's young star, Chadwick Boseman, who was in his mid-30s (but looked much younger) when he played the mid-20s Robinson, had since died at only 43 of colon cancer.
We're no film critic, but we thought Boseman little resembled Robinson in looks, the movie was over-dramatic in places and it presented a fairy-tale ending that was inconsistent with Robinson's life. But that's not why we were interested in the first place.
Where "42" earns its chops, and is relevant as we write this on the day in which the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is marked, is in his scenes with Branch Rickey, who was the president, general manager and part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in his scenes with teammates and opponents as he makes his debut.
It was Rickey, a longtime baseball man, who knew the tremendous talent available in what were then called the Negro leagues and wanted some of that talent on his team to help win games, draw fans and earn money. Eventually, he chose Robinson and brought him in for an interview to be a player on the team's Montreal Royals, its top minor league club.
The Brooklyn Dodgers official, according to biographies, grilled Robinson for three hours, trying to gauge whether he could withstand the pressure of racial hatred that would be heaped upon him without fighting back. Robinson had, in his past, two incidents in which he confronted authority, once while at Pasadena Junior College and once while in the Army. In the first case, when he was arrested for vocally defending the detention of a Black friend, he received a two-year suspended sentence. In the second, when he refused to go to the back of a supposedly desegregated bus, charges were brought against him, but he eventually was cleared on two counts of insubordination by an all-white panel of nine officers.
But with Rickey, Robinson asked, "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Wisely, Rickey said he was seeking a Negro player "with guts enough not to fight back." Ultimately, Robinson said he could do it.
Biographies and the movie reveal how savagely the player was treated, not only in the South during spring training but in northeastern cities where — to believe what passes for history today — all citizens were tolerant, accepting and open to a Black player working into a league that had been only white before.
Robinson's breaking point, a scene in the movie that did not happen in reality but pointed up what obviously had to be the pent-up frustration of a man constantly taking vicious and vile racial comments, had him breaking a bat against concrete walls in the tunnel between the stadium dugout and clubhouse.
Rickey, at the game and having witnessed a constant spew of invectives from Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (which actually happened), confronted the infielder in his agony.
"If you fight they'll say that you're in over your head, that you don't belong here," he said. " We need you. Everybody needs you. You're medicine, Jack."
Robinson is the medicine we all need to be reminded of as we mark King's birthday. The medicine of courage that came from King and Rosa Parks and John Lewis and the seven men who were the first Black members of the modern Chattanooga police force in 1948, the group that integrated lunch counters in Chattanooga in 1960, and Horace Traylor, the first Black man to graduate from the University of Chattanooga in 1965.
Let's face it. Few like to be first, not when presenting in class, being the first in the board room to speak on a proposal or opposing something a politician has said.
The above mentioned individuals not only went first but were Black, when being Black was tantamount to not only not being taken seriously as a professional but also as a human being.
We'll leave you today with another quote from the movie — this one uttered by Rickey before the first pitch of the first game of the 1947 season — Robinson's first in the major leagues — was thrown.
"It's another opening day, Harold," he said to his assistant. "All future, no past."
"It's a blank page, sir," Harold Parrott replies.
Each day offers us an opportunity to act with courage, to leave the past behind, to do what's right, to curb our tongue when it's necessary and speak out when it's not. We may never be a King or a Robinson, but we'll be better for the effort.