This month, the semi-biopic “42” is in heavy rotation on HBO, giving people a chance to see the tempest surrounding Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball. A number of things have been “storified” in order to keep the drama of a film and the legend of Robinson. Still, a number of things were spot-on in terms of events and incidents.
Opposing pitchers did throw at Robinson’s head in the pre-headgear days of baseball, and did so with murderous intent. The hate mail did stack up with such regularity that Rickey dedicated several file folders in his office to keeping it all for law-enforcement officials. Robinson was spiked covering first on more than one occasion, and it was always clear that this was no accident.
Even the petition that circulated among the Dodgers themselves was accurate, with Dixie “The People’s Choice” Walker leading the drive. One thing I wish they had added to the movie was t he team photo from that year. Walker, in protest to Robinson’s presence, looked away from the camera.
The movie gave an honest and yet painful portrayal of racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who rode Robinson mercilessly. Alan Tudyk was damned convincing as the “n-bomb” dropping redneck asshole, to the point that it was hard watching “Dodgeball” later that night and seeing him as Steve the Pirate.
Harrison Ford and Christopher Meloni were great as the Branch Rickey/Leo Durocher pairing. Although Durocher was bounced out of baseball for a year for having an affair, he was instrumental in the early days of getting the guys to understand the reality of Robinson’s presence. Rickey was the glue guy who kept it all together as he implored Robinson to stand tall.
I thought about all of this when my Mizzou friends practically set my Twitter feed on fire, scrambling to congratulate Michael Sam, a 6-foot-2, 256-pound defensive end for our beloved Tigers.
And a football player.
And it’s pretty likely he’s going to be playing in the NFL next year.
Teammates had known for a while and so had many other folks around the city of Columbia. Media reports noted Sam has been an incredible teammate, a great guy and very comfortable in his own skin. A NYT article notes that he frequented local gay bars, talked to teammates about his relationship problems and even told the whole team at the front of the season. Still, nothing leaked and no one outed him.
On the field, he was the SEC’s defensive player of the year, leading the Tigers in sacks. One teammate noted this guy has a “motor that never stops,” which is probably one of the most positive statements people tend to make about players these days.
Comparing Mizzou’s #52 to Brooklyn’s #42 may seem obvious to some and a stretch to others. Perhaps only time will tell as to Sam’s impact while Robinson’s impact is indelible. Still, it is important to understand the reality of both men and what they mean for organized sports
In the case of both men, who they are sits on display for everyone. Historians have often argued if Robinson was truly the first person of color in the game, but whether he was or wasn’t is beside the point. Just like Sam, Robinson’s perceived trait of accursedness is out front and center for all to see. Other players of color might have played as they “passed” for white and other gay men have played football while “closeted” during their careers. However, in the case of Robinson and Sam, hiding wasn’t an option.
In terms of environmental factors, neither man could view his path as easy. The virulent racism outlined in “42” wasn’t a rarity. Sure, not everyone who lived from 1947 to 1956 was racist, but segregation was still the law of the land for much of that time. Until 1954, the Supreme Court was fine with “Separate but Equal,” even though the country seemed to focus more on the “separate” part and less on the “equal.” Even though Robinson wasn’t universally reviled by white America, it wasn’t easy to find a ton of whites lining up to be part of his fan club.
As for Sam, things don’t look any better for gay athletes now than they did for black athletes back then. The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin flap has led to the release of more than 1,000 texts between the two former teammates. In the texts, Incognito uses “fag,” “faggot,” “gay” and other slurs throughout his texts, including one in which he tells Martin, “That’s the gayest shit I’ve ever heard. U really are a faggot.”
Even though Incognito’s writings make “Django Unchained” look like “Good Night, Moon,” it’s not just about this one guy. A lot of players have noted that they wouldn’t want a gay teammate and that they frequently question the manhood of others (translation: you’re a woman, a pussy, a weakling, a faggot and all of those insults are basically interchangeable).
Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas has said that the NFL might not be ready for an openly gay player, a massaged and politically correct way of saying, “Keep that (fill in the blank of whatever makes you uncomfortable) away from me and my league.” Last year around this time 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver(what is with these guys in the defensive backfield?) said that although he didn’t have any gay teammates, if he did they “gotta get up out of here.” He also noted that he “can’t be with that sweet stuff… in the locker room.”
They said it about the black player and now they’re saying it about the gay player.
I don’t know if the support systems are better now than they were. Blacks cheered for Robinson and I know a lot of people (gay and straight) who are cheering for Sam. At least, there’s not a “homos only” entrance on the stadium as there was for the “colored” fans. I do imagine the league is more attuned to keeping an eye on things than it once was. When Chapman uttered his hateful bile, he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t punished swiftly. When the texts in the Incognito thing came out, the league cracked down. Even Culliver got cowed into backtracking from his “sweet stuff” comments.
Perhaps the only parallel I hope that will matter is this one: In both the movie and real life, Durocher noted that the guys had better get used to this change in life because Robinson was “first of many to follow.”
I hope that Sam’s courage will lead this to be true in this time as well.