There’s a new movie coming out this week that paints a rather unflattering picture of Philadelphia and its sports culture. And it goes much farther back, and much deeper, than fans booing Santa Claus or Michael Irvin.
42, the powerful new biopic of Jackie Robinson, tells of the events surrounding Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, when he proved the segregationists and racists wrong and established himself as both all-time great of the game and, as Peter Gammons once described him, the most important athlete of the 20th century.
As the film shows, Robinson was snubbed by teammates, heckled by opponents, and even received death threats from fans. In one particularly infuriating scene, because Robinson is on the team, the Dodgers are refused entry to a hotel. Was the hotel in the Deep South? No, it’s the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia.
In another scene, a representative of the Phillies, general manager Herb Pennock, calls Dodgers boss Branch Rickey and threatens a boycott of an upcoming game if Robinson makes the trip to Philly along with his team. In the film we never actually see Robinson play in Philadelphia, but when the teams play in Brooklyn, the Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman, spends an entire game standing next to the dugout, shouting racial slurs at the Dodgers legend.
From biographies and historical accounts I’ve read, this is all historically accurate. Indeed, Robinson once told a biographer that the reactions when he played in Philly were “the most unpleasant days in my life, that brought me nearer to cracking up than I had been.”
The Phillies, as an organization, didn’t have a lot to be proud of for the majority of the 20th century, and not only because they failed to win the World Series before 1980. The Phillies were the last team in the National League to integrate, with shortstop John Kennedy becoming the first black Phillie in 1957.
Kennedy’s debut came a full 10 years after Jackie Robinson stepped on the field for the Dodgers; in fact, Robinson had already retired from baseball by the time the Phils broke their own color barrier. Kennedy only played in a handful of games, and the Phils wouldn’t have a star black player until Richie Allen in the 1960s—and the Philly faithful often didn’t treat Allen much better than they did Robinson.
The people who run the Phillies today have shown every indication that they’re aware of the significance and gravity of this history and that they know they have a responsibility to do what they can to atone for it. The Phillies have long contributed to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which has a heavy presence here in town, while Jackie Robinson Day (April 15th) is celebrated as fervently in Philadelphia as it is anywhere.
The Phillies are now managed by a very different sort of Southerner than Ben Chapman, a man not associated in any way with either racial prejudice or trash-talking. In an age in which the numbers of African-Americans players across Major League Baseball are dwindling, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins have been primary faces of the Phillies franchise for most of the last decade. And crowds at Citizens Bank Park are far from monochromatic, at least compared to those in many other major league cities.
Which isn’t to say we’ve come as far as we should have. We’re still reminded on a semi-regular basis that poisonous racial prejudice in this city is very much not a thing of the past, and if you don’t think there isn’t still some intersection between fandom and that kind of prejudice, you’ve probably never heard the chatter in a local sports bar on an Eagles Sunday after Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick has thrown an interception.
Sixty-six years after Jackie Robinson was given a hateful reception in Philadelphia, Robinson’s #42 hangs in Citizens Bank Park, as part of every Major League team having retired Robinson’s number. I don’t necessarily understand the point of not allowing players to wear #42—especially since every year on Jackie Robinson Day, EVERY player wears 42—but I do understand the logic of putting the number up in each stadium alongside each team’s own retired numbers. Because at just about every baseball game that’s played, there’s at least one kid in the ballpark who looks up and asks his mother or father or aunt or uncle, “hey, what do those numbers mean?”
That’s one reminder of Jackie Robinson’s heroism; the fine new film 42 is another.