Note: This is the second in a three-part series of blogs focusing on 42, the new film from Warner Brothers that focuses on the life of Jackie Robinson.
“Give me a uniform and give me a number of my back, and I’ll give you the guts.” It was one line that changed the Great American Pastime. In 1945, following the end of World War II, America’s heroes returned home. Some of those heroes typically spent their summers playing a game, a simple game of catch where occasionally someone would hit the ball with a stick. And every one and awhile, that hit would sail so long that crowds would rise from their seats and cheer.
When you think about it, baseball is probably one of the oddest activities humanity has ever concocted. It is a lot like golf or polo, where men with sticks attempt to knock a little ball into a small cup. Only in baseball, the object is a little more complex. Baseball games can be long and grueling, like soccer or basketball except with less action. The goal is to score more points than the other team, like football or hockey. Only baseball is not a contact sport like football and there are (usually) fewer fights. It was America’s version of the “gentlemen’s game,” originally started by Civil War soldiers to pass the time between skirmishes.
Yet, as American as baseball was, there was one distinct problem—it was horribly one-sided in terms of participants. It was a white man’s game. It had always been a white man’s game. Yes, black men could play. However they could not play together. The thought of white men and black men playing together was absurd. That was until Branch Rickey, the legendary owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, went on a campaign to change the face of baseball. In 1945, Rickey put out a call to a young Negro League player named Jackie Robinson, then a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey presented Robinson with a challenge—could he, as a lone baseball player, bring about a change that would not only affect the game but also a nation. However it would not be an easy change to make. Racism was a deeply-rooted disease in America in the 1940s. (To be honest, it is still a deeply-rooted disease in some places and with some populations.) He would insulted and possibly even assaulted for forcing the “color issue” on baseball and the American public. Robinson was known for his temper. He often reacted in order to solve racially-motivated problems. However, Rickey knew better. This scene in 42 is dripping with compelling emotion. When Robinson asks if Rickey wants a ballplayer who has the guts to fight back against injustice and racial oppression, Rickey responds by saying that he wants a ballplayer who has “the guts not to fight back.” “Give me a uniform and give me a number on my back,” Robinson said, “and I’ll give you the guts.” Commitment to a cause brings about change.