42: The True Story of an American Legend edifies a new generation with the story Jackie Robinson’s magical first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he defeated Jim Crow, won National League Rookie of the Year, and led “The Bums” to the 1947 World Series, where they lost in seven games to Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees. Better luck, in 1955!
The film dramatizes such racially-charged episodes of Jackie’s epic year as the “nigger” taunts hurled at him by Philadelphia Manager Ben Chapman (also a rabid anti-Semite), his blatant spiking by St Louis’ Enos Slaughter, and the supportive, on-field hug he received in Cincinnati from Dodger shortstop and captain, Louisville-born Pee Wee Rees.
Yet the film is also a case study of a tendency to “white out” the role of American Jews in the history of the movement for African American rights.
With a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, 42 is very much the Jackie Robinson story seen through the eyes of an African American newspaperman. Portrayed prominently in the film, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier helped chaperone Robinson during the 1947 season and co-wrote his first autobiography.
Smith had a zero-sum view of who should be given credit for advancing Robinson’s career: meaning Smith above everybody else. This was particularly significant regarding those Jews who could claim part of the credit such as Daily Worker sports columnist Lester Rodney and Boston city councilor Isadore Muchnick—described by Boston black journalist Mabray “Doc” Kountze as a “white modern abolitionist.” Muchnick’s pivotal role in arranging Robinson’s 1945 tryout with the Boston Braves was belittled and besmirched by Smith. He suggested that Muchnick—who was elected twice without opposition from an almost 100 percent white district (with perhaps the highest concentration of Jews in the country)—was somehow motivated by a hankering for black votes.
At the heart of the depiction of Dodger owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) is his Methodist faith: “Robinson is a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God is a Methodist.” On the other hand, there are no identifiable Jewish characters, although the anti-Jewish bigotry of the Phillies’ owner as well as manager Chapman is made clear. It would have been easy for Helgeland to include a Jewish baseball player. In fact, Hank Greenberg (then finishing his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates) arguably went further out of his way to befriend and defend Robinson than did his teammate Pee Wee Reese.
Then, there is Brooklyn where, in 42, Robinson is cheered by black fans plus whites of no discernible ethnicity. The reality is that the core of his white fan base seems to have been Jewish. Brooklyn Jews were not immune to the borough’s rampant tribalism. Jackie and Rachel moved into a Flatbush duplex owned by a black woman who previously had to face down a petition signed by predominately Jewish neighbors discouraging her from buying the house. (Years later, Jews helped the Robinsons integrate North Stamford, Connecticut.)
Yet just as the Robinson’s best friends in Montreal (where he played in the Minors) had been Jewish, their Flatbush white friends seem to have been virtually all Jews, including lifelong friends, Sam and Belle Maltin, whom the Robinsons naively presented with a Christmas tree. Jackie, Jr., was so exposed to Flatbush’s Jewish mise-en-scène that his father joked that his son began to believe he was Jewish.
In addition to the Maltins, Robinson’s circle of Jewish intimates formed during the Brooklyn years included ADL leader Arnold Forster, Bea and Andre Baruch, a Dodger announcer; Frank Schiffman and his son Bobbie, owners of the Apollo Theater; Meyer Robinson of Manischewitz Wines; and lawyers, advisers, and partners Martin Stone, Catskill resort owner Jennie Grossinger, and Chicago-based theater owners Caroline and David Wallerstein. Jackie Robinson reciprocated by his outspoken, sometimes lonely denunciations of anti-Semitism, especially among Black Nationalists.
To give Louis Farrakhan his due: he’s never “whited out” Jews. In Nation of Islam pseudo-history, Jewish merchants (under two percent of those involved) “dominated” the slave trade, just as Jewish merchants were the archetypal “ghetto bloodsuckers,” and Jewish civil rights activists were the preeminent insidious manipulators of an integrationist agenda that benefited Jews but not African Americans.
Yet “insidious” is the correct words for some tendentious writing of civil rights history. This amounts to a historiographical shell game that characterizes allegedly unscrupulous storekeepers as “Jewish” on the basis of their ethnicity, but typically characterizes civil rights workers as somehow “not Jewish” unless they religiously self-identify with Judaism.
There is no reason to attribute any such malice to this inspiring film celebrating true American heroism. Why, then, were Jews “whited out” of 42? Probably partly because of the filmmakers’ paying homage to Wendell Smith (who indeed played an important role in Robinson’s career) by treating him as the authoritative interpreter of events. Yet the film also mirrors a “white-out” of the role of American Jews, perhaps to avoid controversy—but at the expense of capturing the complexities of religious-ethnic-racial history.
As I’ve already indicated, these complexities can cut both ways: the Robinsons’ African American landlady faced hostility from fellow Flatbush Jewish homeowners, while—before and later—the Robinsons’ received critical support from many more Jews. The predominately positive side of the story should be told without either by ignoring the one negative episode or by “whiting out” the Jewish role entirely.
Through my work as a consultant, I helped accentuate the positive on breaking baseball color line’s fiftieth anniversary in 1997 when the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance—inspired by the incredible Rachel Robinson (who just turned 90)—successfully lobbied a reluctant Rose Bowl Parade Float Committee to include our commemorative Float in its Parade through Jackie’s hometown of Pasadena. Stephen H. Norwood and I then opened up for fresh study Jackie Robinsons’ relationship with the Jews in “Going to Bat for Jackie Robinson,” Journal of Sport History, 26:1 (1999), 118-44.
Published earlier, Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997) nevertheless is still worth reading on this subject. So, too, are more recent books: Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (2003); John Eig’s Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (2008); and Rebecca T. Alpert’s Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (2011).