Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947.
It is difficult to comprehend the sheer hatred he had to face from many fans across the country, even in New York City, where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Death threats and taunts were everyday realities.
The movie 42 (named for Robinson’s uniform number) portrays a critical moment early in that first season.
Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, one of baseball’s most popular players, approaches Robinson before the start of a game at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. The fans are showering Robinson with racial epithets.
Reese does the unthinkable. He throws his arm around the black player. And stands there alongside him.
Here’s the movie’s depiction of that moment.
No pictures of the actual event survive. But the two men and their families routinely affirmed its reality.
Mark Reese said about his dad a half century later, “My father had done his own soul searching, and he knew that some fans, teammates, and yes, some family members didn’t want him to play with a black man. But my father listened to his heart, and not to the chorus.”
Pee Wee, two years before his death in 1999, admitted he was amazed that his quiet gesture had become iconic.
He told the New York Times, “Something in my gut reacted at the moment. Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don’t know.”
Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, has said, “I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee’s gesture the day it happened. It came as such a relief to him, that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship.”
Robinson himself told Arnold Rampersad, his biographer: “Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of helpless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while… He was standing by me, I could tell you that.”
The hecklers in the stands grew quiet that day. “I will never forget it,” Robinson said.
The movie adds some dialogue that almost certainly did not occur. Reese, trying to lighten the moment, says, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42. That way they won’t tell us apart.”
In recent years that wish has come true. April 15 has been designated Jackie Robinson Day by Major League Baseball. On that day every player on every team – whether black, white, Latino, or Asian – wears the number 42. Even the umpires join in.
Few of us are summoned to the drama of being cultural trailblazers like Jackie Robinson. His call required a special kind of courage.
But every one of us is called to come alongside those who would be blessed by even a simple gesture of partnership and respect.
Do it today.
Literally or figuratively, put your arm around someone.
Let them know they aren’t standing alone.
— Authored by Glenn McDonald
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