The Jackie Robinson You Won’t See in ’42’

Guest blog: He made history breaking baseball’s color barrier, but off the field he often found himself on the wrong side of history

There is probably no one in American sports more beloved than Jackie Robinson, who receives worshipful treatment in the new Legendary Pictures-Warner Bros.’ biopic, “42.”

The film, which stars Chadwick Boseman as the legendary ballplayer and Harrison Ford as the man who put him in the lineup – Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey – opens Friday. But there’s a darker side to Robinson’s life story that won’t be celebrated by baseball, and isn’t in the film

On the field, Robinson made history when he broke baseball’s color barrier, but off the field he often found himself on the wrong side of history.

His was, in fact, a life filled with regret.

Robinson backed the wrong horse in the 1960 presidential election, campaigning for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy – a decision he would later come to regret.

A staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, Robinson went so far as to challenge the patriotism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali when they came out against the war. This too, he would later regret, when his own son, Jackie Jr., returned a wrecked man and addicted to heroin after a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Jackie Robinson opened the door to hundreds of African American baseball players, but he betrayed the man who opened the door for him – Paul Robeson, the great American actor, athlete and activist. In 1949, Jackie denounced Robeson before the now-discredited House Un-American Activities Committee, on which his future friend, Richard Nixon, sat as a second-term congressman.

Six years earlier, and four years before Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier, Robeson spoke to the baseball owners at their annual winter meeting to discuss the possibility of integrating the game. He came at the invitation of baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

“You all know him,” Landis said, introducing Robeson to the owners. “You all know that he is a great man in public life, a great American.”

Robeson was indeed that. Perhaps best known today as the singer of “Ol’ Man River,” Robeson was one of the two most admired and respected African Americans in the country – boxing great Joe Louis being the other.

Robeson first gained fame as an All-American athlete at Rutgers, where he was the greatest college football player of his day, and then went on to become one of the first African Americans to play professional football. A graduate of the Columbia Law School, he would go on to fame as an internationally renowned bass-baritone concert singer, writer, multi-lingual orator, scholar, attorney and civil rights pioneer. 

 On stage, Robeson first won acclaim for his 1924 performance in the title role of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” and went on to star in the 1928 London production of “Show Boat,” where he introduced “Ol’ Man River.” In 1930, he starred on the London stage in the title role of William Shakespeare‘s “Othello,” when no U.S. theater company would cast an African American in the part.

He made his feature film debut in 1924, starring in the silent film “Body and Soul,” by pioneering African American director Oscar Micheaux. Robeson went on to appear in more than a dozen other motion pictures, including “Show Boat,” “King Solomon’s Mines” and “The Emperor Jones.”

Speaking to the baseball owners that day in 1943 about the need to integrate baseball, Robeson said: “I come here as an American and a former athlete. I come because I feel this problem deeply.”

Less than two months earlier, he told the owners, he’d become the first African American actor to play Othello on Broadway, adding that if Americans were ready to see a black man portray a black man on the stage in an otherwise all-white play, they were ready to see a black man in a major league baseball uniform.

Then, addressing what he knew to be the owners’ concerns about racial disturbances at ballparks if blacks were to be allowed to play on the field, he said, “My football experience showed me such fears are groundless.”

News accounts of the day reported that when he was finished, Robeson was given a “rousing ovation” by the owners, and afterwards Commissioner Landis told the owners that as far as he was concerned, “Each club is entirely free to employ Negro players as it pleases.”

Three years later, in 1946, Jackie Robinson broke the minor league’s color barrier, and on Oct. 4 led his team, the Montreal Royals – the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm team – to victory in the minor league World Series, defeating the Louisville Colonels four games to two.

Three days later, Paul Robeson, whose increasingly sharp rhetoric had begun to lose favor with many white Americans, was called to appear before the California State Senate’s Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities.

“As a Negro in America,” Robeson told the committee, “I can speak here today. But I could go down to Georgia tomorrow and I’d be dead.”

Robeson, who’d lived briefly in Russia before the advent of World War II, was asked if he thought that Russia in 1917 was the ideal testing ground for Marxism.

“No,” he told the committee. “I think the best country in the world to test the principles of Marxism might be the America of today. Russia in 1917 was too poor.”