Home » Every Hero Needs A Villain – What Happens When Baseball Is The Bad Guy?

Every Hero Needs A Villain – What Happens When Baseball Is The Bad Guy?

by Michael Haigis

42 has a problem. The 2013 film means to tell the story of Jackie Robinson and the teardown of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. It also means to be a sweet display of good triumphing over evil. It also means to reflect America in baseball, Civil Rights in Robinson, and it really also means for the MLB of 1947 to triumph over the evil, ignorance, and hate of the day. The problem, though, is that the conflation of baseball and America cuts both ways. In the America of the day, baseball was the oppressor, and baseball was the status quo. The color barrier was not some cultural tic, an oddity of the time; it was the law of the land for several decades, a compact entered into voluntarily by every league member.

In this respect, 42 has the same personality disorder as other Baseball Movies about change and the triumph of individuals over the establishment, even a feel-good comedy like A League of Their Own or a technical, inside-baseball story like Moneyball. For a story to have a hero, it must to have a villain, but the sport’s reflection in popular culture – as America’s pastime, as a map of our national psyche and a memory bank of our individual stories, both ephemeral and eternal – prevents these films from appraising the dynamic honestly. A movie like 42 celebrates Jackie Robinson, and it clearly adores baseball, but that the two were in fundamental opposition would have presented an unavoidable truth to 42, had it chosen to ask the meaningful questions.

Is Robinson a hero, an incorruptible testament to the unstoppable power of merit, and evidence of progressive societal change? Or is he a victim, robbed of prime professional years by a racist unwritten rule, and forced to meet unrealistic standards of behavior and performance just to hold the same job as less-talented players?

Take Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn General Manager who signs Robinson – to what extent is he a shrewd businessman capitalizing early on an impending sea change, and to what extent is he an idealist, using his influence to right the wrongs of society? Is baseball itself the suppressive, immovable status quo? Or is it blind meritocracy, where a high enough batting average might silence even the most racist manager hurling insults from his dugout steps.

42 ignores these dualities by boiling Robinson’s considerable accomplishment down to its most inoffensive, sentimental core. Racism in the film is represented in the kind of bald, disgusting displays – Ben Chapman (the Phillies Manager) and his slurs, a player’s cleats and their spikes – that are easily attributed to and left in a time long passed by, unfortunate relics from a different era. The casual, endemic racism infecting baseball, and America – the foundation that afforded Chapman the confidence to strip a man’s humanity in front of an entire stadium – is essentially ignored. In 42, teammates withdraw, but quickly realize the error of their ways. Those who don’t come around suffer the ignominy of a trade to Pittsburgh, where they ostensibly continue to play professional baseball for a large paycheck. It’s easier to to ship the elephant in the room to the Ohio Valley than address it.

42 treats Robinson as a symbol, which is mostly the way he is imagined today anyway, but the film’s reluctance to humanize him in any way betrays its larger problem. How can a film with an unquestioning love of baseball be honest about baseball? It must treat the sport as both exception and rule – as a romantic, everlasting representation our national identity, a malleable, evolving institution, subject to winds of change from outside and within, but also something inherently infallible but still subject to the flaws of the human condition. It’s impossible, however, to treat the game as both, in equal measure, which is why in 42, a nation of racists – militant or incidental – is represented by a handful of abhorrent characters who are either fired or traded, and why Branch Rickey must appear to be more than just a money man who can see the future.

It’s why the film makes a mere passing mention of Negro Leagues players – as talented or moreso than Jackie – who were cruelly denied Major League opportunity because the time wasn’t right. It’s why the film doesn’t acknowledge that Robinson’s first year in the Majors came a full seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, sixty-one years before the nations’ first Black president. 42 makes a hero out of Jackie Robinson, but can’t bring itself to make a villain out of baseball – or the monoculture baseball is meant to represent.

These movies can’t help but empathize with baseball, removing agency from the game to preserve its wholesomeness in retrospect. 42, A League of Their Own, Moneyball – they all argue the same idea: if you can win, you can play. The goods are all that matter. Baseball is never the manager at the top of the steps; at worst, it’s a guilty bystander, a product of circumstance. That’s why, in each of these films, the insurgents and individuals are met by actors from within, establishment members who see the value of change. In this way, the films undermine baseball’s compliance, shifting the role of the game from oppressor to oppressed.

Branch Ricky and the teammates who come to support Robinson are the benevolent insiders in 42. That they may have had additional motives – to win, to keep a job – is never given much consideration. In A League of Their Own, the role of benefactor is played by Ira Lowenstein, the General Manager who tries desperately to keep the women’s league afloat, meeting the girls’ eventual return to the kitchens of America with a sincere lament. It’s also represented in Jimmy Dugan, the Major League hero who legitimizes the women he manages with the title “Ballplayer,” – once he realizes his players can do more than just complain about their periods, break nails, and cry about men.

In Moneyball, it’s Red Sox owner John Henry, greeting Billy Beane with a fat check once Beane’s revolutionary strategies prove successful. Importantly, it’s also Beane himself; Moneyball is a story that allows baseball to sincerely represent both the establishment and the insurgent. Sure, Beane’s new-age metrics and scouting ideas are met with dismissal and disdain by ancient talent evaluators who would rather discuss a player’s girlfriend than his on-base percentage, but Beane eventually succeeds, the champion of a movement that started within the league’s rank and file.

Moneyball admits – with comparative ease, since it’s about the invention of new scouting methods instead of the exclusion of an entire race or gender – what these other films cannot: that the idea of baseball as a collective cultural force, as a romantic ideal, exists solely in the minds of individuals. Major League Baseball is a collective, but it’s a corporation, a business. Billy Beane is a rogue agent within the sport until his methods prove profitable.  Jackie Robinson – and the black players that immediately followed him – were threats with an earning potential too enticing to ignore. The women in A League of Their Own were accepted for as long as their earning power was necessary, and after that they were packaged in a Cooperstown time capsule, granted an exhibit for their time in the game.

Mostly, the films stop just short of these admissions, though, because baseball’s strongest similarity with America is its selective memory – the convenient way it chooses its history. The idealism of Rickey, the sympathy of Dugan, John Henry’s offer – they are meant to reflect the inherent idealism of our national pastime, a core fiber that resists the negative pressures of a given day. In 42, A League of Their Own, and even in Moneyball, the opposite is actually true – baseball’s driving principle is instead a preservation of its own interests, and that Robinson’s integration, The All American Girls’ League, Billy Beane’s statistical revolution are the exceptions that prove the rule. Baseball doesn’t seek change; change seeks baseball. How the game answers the call depends largely on how much it’s incumbent population stands to lose. What these Baseball Movies can’t admit is that baseball does in fact mirror America; the reflection just isn’t always pleasant.

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