Go to any park in the Majors and somewhere around the bleachers, usually right below the scoreboard, you’ll see a line of numbers. These are the numbers that have been retired: players so great that the franchise will never let another player wear their digits. One number is a different color than all the others: 42. This isn’t because it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s because Jackie Robinson wore it when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-1956. On April 15, 1997, Robinson’s number became the first to be retired through an entire league. This is because Robinson was the first black man to play in the Major Leagues in eighty years, striking a blow against the appalling racial segregation that infected America.
The idea of disallowing participation in sports based on race is a ridiculous one now, sort of like how our grandchildren will look at the debate over gay marriage. At the time, it was vitally important that black people and white people be kept as far apart as possible. I have a range of hypotheses about why this is so, ranging from the agenda of the ultra-wealthy to the fact that the three pointer had not been invented, and will happily tell you about them if you buy me a strong enough drink. None of this is really relevant; I just enjoy pointing out yet another case of conservatives being on the wrong side of history.
This week’s After School Special, “Thank You, Jackie Robinson” isn’t really about Jackie Robinson. He appears in some vintage news footage and has a speaking scene where the actor portraying him keeps his back resolutely to the camera. Instead, it concerns the relationship of Sammy, a thirteen-year-old white kid and Davy, a black man in his sixties. This sounds like a recipe for some Man Without a Face level creepiness, but the relationship is thankfully chaste. We haven’t gotten to that episode yet. No, Sammy and Davy are both Brooklyn Dodger fans and bond over it.
That’s the positive element of sports fandom. Early humanity lived in small groups. It wasn’t until recently that we decided that, you know what, bees have the right idea and we should all be crammed into hives. Paradoxically, this alienates what should be a social animal. This is why so much of modern life is involved in forging an identity as a member of a small group, whether it be practitioner of a hobby (kite-flying, wargaming, competitive eating), follower of a band, book or movie (Parrotheads, Goreans or Trekkies) or fans of a specific team. In a post-tribal world, we create tribes based not on physical location but rather on common interests, even if such things are inherently arbitrary. Jerry Seinfeld rightly pointed out that due to the frequency with which players move from team to team, sports fans are basically cheering for laundry. I was a huge Shaq fan when he played for the Lakers. Now that he plays for the Celtics, he is dead to me. Why? He’s the same guy. He’s still the giant goofball, indifferent to exercise, mostly interested in being famous. When he played for my team I made excuses for him. Now that he plays for the enemy, I see only the flaws. There are times when one isn’t cheering for laundry, when a truly transcendent athlete plays for your team, guys that redefine what was previously thought possible in the sport. Guys like Jackie Robinson.
The episode takes place in 1947 during Robinson’s celebrated rookie season. The creators tried to create a period feel. The soundtrack was apparently borrowed from that Paul Sorvino/Chazz Palminteri film, Distracting Trumpet. The episode is entirely in black and white, and though I would like to say that this is symbolic of the racial content, it was done to match the vintage footage of Dodger greats on the field. Black and white film of Robinson and Pee Wee Reese is far more symbolic of just how far the mighty Dodgers have fallen since the glory days.
A friendship blossoms between Sammy and Davy as they realize that, despite age and ethnic differences, they’re members of the same sub-tribe. Racism is acknowledged, notably when Sammy and Davy won’t be able to stay at the same hotel on a visit to Pittsburgh for a road game and when an opposing player spikes Robinson without consequence. The special could have benefited from a little more. The ‘40s (you know, those magical good ol’ days the Republicans want to take us back to) were an ugly time for anyone that wasn’t a white man. I’m not suggesting that what the episode really needed was a lynching, but a confrontation with a couple of ignorant whites wouldn’t have hurt.
Davy’s problem is that he’s a black man in the ‘40s, which means his life expectancy is 28. He’s in his sixties, he has a bad heart, and he has to work on his feet, so he’s already living on so much borrowed time, he’s terrified China will collapse his economy. He ends up suffering what eventually turns out to be a fatal heart attack. Sammy believes that an autographed ball from Jackie Robinson will make Davy feel better, because Sammy vastly overestimates the healing power of baseball. Which is to say none at all. I like baseball as much as the next guy, but the only thing it can cure is insomnia. Anyway, Sammy’s misguided belief explains the episode’s alternate title “A Home Run for Love.” This doubles as the worst title ever.
One of the most fun aspects of watching an After School Special is keeping an eye out for recognizable faces. Anne Ramsey, who played crotchety heavies in The Goonies and Throw Momma From the Train, shows up as a nun/nurse whose sole purpose is to keep Davy’s room free of non-relatives. Edie McClurg, a.k.a. Ed Rooney’s secretary, plays a waitress sadly bereft of that awesome Chicago accent that made her semi-famous. Sammy’s older sister Sara seems familiar. She’s tall, sort of awkward, with a severe face and expressive hands. Checking the imdb, this turns out to be Felicity (credited here as “Flicka”) Huffman, one half of Hollywood power couple Filliam H. Muffman. She displays none of the attributes that would later make her a star. In other words, we see neither a nuanced performance nor a fake penis.
“Thank You, Jackie Robinson” is another episode that uses a device that would never fly on television today: the friendship between a grown man and a pubescent boy. It’s much more successful than “The Skating Rink,” which unfortunately makes it less enjoyable. It was nice to delve into the storied history of the Dodgers, and to remind myself that Jackie Robinson wasn’t just the most important player of all time, he was a damned good one too. Leo Durocher, Robinson’s manager said it best: “You want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat you. He come to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.” Hell yeah. Jackie Robinson will bat-rape you for racial equality.
Now there’s a hero I can get behind. Mostly because I sure as hell won’t stand in his way.
Next up: “My Other Mother” about those brothers I keep hearing so much about.