Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"42" and The High Hard One

"42," the Jackie Robinson movie, is still playing in Mankato. This surprises me; when I went, on its opening night in mid-April, there weren't two dozen people in the theater and I figured the majority of them were high school or college baseball players. That's not much of a target audience.

And yet, here we are six weeks later, and the movie's still hanging around.

The outline of the Robinson saga is no secret: Branch Rickey, the Mahatma of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decides to challenge the unofficial color barrier and selects Robinson as the pioneer. Robinson breaks through the opposition and the pressure and becomes a star. It's one significant step in the civil rights movement.

Much of the movie is set around Robinson vs. the racist villains. Some of the villains — such as the southern sheriff seen ordering Robinson off the field in an exhibition game — are anonymous. Many of them — including some of Robinson's fellow Dodgers — are not.

Let me point out that the movie is not always in agreement with the historical record. Eddie Stanky, for example. Stanky is depicted in the movie as at worst ambivalent about Robinson, unwilling to go in on the petition to keep Robinson off the team. In reality, he was firmly opposed to Robinson, and told Robinson so to his face. (It is also true that, as shown in the movie, Stanky came to Robinson's defense during the Ben Chapman incident.)

I had no issue with the depictions of Kirby Higbe and Dixie Walker, two southern-bred Dodgers seen in the film as firmly opposed to Robinson's presence. That is accurate. Walker, years later, would acknowledge that he was wrong and regret his opposition.

Then there's Higbe, a South Carolinian whose opposition to Robinson got him traded a couple weeks into the season.

Some 20 years after Robinson's debut — 1967, still in the midst of the civil rights debate; Martin Luther King Jr. had not yet been assassinated — Higbe's memoirs were published. The High Hard One is a fascinating work, clearly in Higbe's voice but also heavily ghostwritten by Martin Quigley. I had read excerpts from it before, but not the work in its entirety until the past week, when my wife found a copy for me. It is in turns hilarious and heartwrenching, bitter and sweet, full of pride and regrets.

The chapter on Robinson is deeply conflicted, marked with a notable obtuseness to the realities of black life in the South and the evils of segregation, and by a stubborn refusal to admit being on the wrong side:

If I could have looked ahead and seen all the change that was coming, I think I still would have done what I did. I was brought up a Southerner, and I was brought up to stand by what you said and believed in even if you were the last one standing there.

And on the other hand, a few paragraphs later:

Jackie proved himself a big-league ballplayer, and there is no politics that can help a man on the field ... If it had been any other player than Jackie Robinson — say, one with less talent and hustle — the color line would not have been broken quite so cleanly or easily. His job was to be the first Negro ballplayer in the major leagues and to show the way for the others. He wanted that more than anything else, and he got the job done.

I don't think "easily" is an accurate word, but, again, Higbe had little difficulty overlooking the abuse and threats that shadowed Robinson in particular and blacks in general.

Higbe, who died in 1985 at the age of 70, had a strong right arm and a grade-school education. He was ill-prepared for the change Jackie Robinson represented. I can sympathize with Higbe's dilemma in 1947 without agreeing with the stance he took.

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