“Opening Day,” says Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, “is all future. The past is wiped away. It's a clean slate.” It's a nice little platitude to mutter in the locker room, but both on the baseball field and in the real world, it's the kind of starry-eyed naive optimism that is likely to blow up in your face if you believe in it too much.
Of course a new season carries with it the promise of unlimited potential, in the same way that each morning grants us a new life, the freedom to do anything we want. But that limitless opportunity is almost immediately checked by the obligations created by our past. Either Rickey is delusional, or, more likely, the screenwriter wanted to try to say something about life, America, and baseball.
What's weird about this sentiment is that it fights, tooth and nail, the main appeal of baseball as an American pastime. Baseball lives for nostalgia, for echoes of past glory, and for an ongoing narrative. Without the past, professional baseball is as meaningless as any pick-up game played in the park on a hot summer day. It lives in both the anecdote, and the historical statistic; fans, players, and reporters alike all fawn over every detail of a player's career, both on the field and off.
Most versions of Robinson's story, including 42, dwell on the 1947 baseball season, in which Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey promoted Jackie Robinson to the starting squad, making him the first black player in major league baseball (at least, the first since the 1880s) and forever shattering the color barrier that divided the National and American leagues from the so-called Negro Leagues. Few deal with his time with the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black barnstorming team that appears for one scene in the new film, before being relegated to the annals of history for the more palatable story of Robinson's rise to greatness.
Given even less screen time is anything having to do with Robinson's early athletic career, his growing up and playing multiple sports at Muir High School, and Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College), followed by a stint at UCLA. Two title cards in short scenes involving proposing to his fiancee and making arrangements for her to move to Brooklyn with their newborn baby are the only glimpses of the Southland we get to see. His time spent on the UCLA varsity squad is referenced twice, and the only other time California is mentioned is as a veiled threat when Robinson arrives in Florida: “You ain't in California anymore.”
Putting aside the easy dismissal of California's somewhat more nuanced racial history (hint: It wasn't exactly a picnic here either in the '40s if you weren't white), I must admit I feel disheartened by the lack of context provided by the film. We never get to see Jackie Robinson before he meets Branch Rickey, before he's assigned to a Dodgers farm team to develop and test him for the upcoming trial by fire. It's assuming the same thing that Rickey does when he looks out on the field: that the past doesn't matter, and the slate is clean. But that undercuts the heroism of Robinson, which is not just that he played well and was a gentleman in the face of unthinkable racial abuse, but that he was a symbol of both owning our troubled past, and overcoming it.
Mostly, I'm disappointed because Robinson's journey really both starts and ends in Los Angeles. He retired from baseball in 1956, a full season before the Dodgers would move to L.A., but his jersey was retired here at in 1972 alongside Sandy Koufax's, and 42 stands apart from the other retired numbers that grace the pavilions at Dodger Stadium as the sole set of digits printed in white on a blue field, whereas all others are blue on a white field.
Baseball is a game obsessed with its history, and, more specifically, the way its history affects its present. Every time I'm at Dodger Stadium, I'm keenly aware of how far back that goes: through my lifetime, and that of my parents, from Dodger Stadium to Ebbets Field, where in 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, wearing a uniform with the same team name and colors that the Los Angeles Dodgers still take the field in today.