If you’ve spent more than five minutes with my mother, you likely have been told that she’s from Brooklyn. She’s not shy about telling you, whether you are someone she meets at church, a friend of my sister or mine, or a complete stranger that had walked into the Subway wallpapered with New York subway maps that she used to own. So when 42 was first announced, I knew that I would want to see it with her. And see it with her I did.
When Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, my mom — who recently turned 70 — was the tender age of 4, so she doesn’t remember his debut. Growing up, I never really asked my mom too much about Robinson. I knew who he was, and I knew that she knew who he was and that she appreciated what he meant to baseball and this country in general, but that was about as far as it went. The only thing that my mother always volunteered about the Dodgers was that her time as a sports fan abruptly ended when the team tucked tail and moved to Los Angeles.
She could never square with that decision, and she probably wasn’t alone. Her younger brother, my uncle, would become a Mets fan, but my mother — who was in high school at the time — left baseball when baseball left her. In fact, at the end of the movie, when Ed Charles is described as being a member of the “Miracle Mets,” my mother immediately questioned who they were. When I explained that was simply the nickname for the 1969 New York Mets who had won the World Series, she was surprised, as she had never heard that term before. That caught me a little by surprise, because one of my father’s favorite stories to tell about his courtship of my mother was how he — in his words — finally impressed my grandfather by selling his tickets for the 1969 World Series so that he could join my mother and her family when my aunt was in labor.
But growing up, my mother liked the Dodgers just fine. In 42, when they show the Dodgers team bus roll into Philadelphia with “’Dem Bums” emblazoned near the door, she hooted in her seat. “’Dem Bums, that’s what we used to call them,” she practically bellowed in the theater. That didn’t mean she made it to a lot of games as a kid. “I went to one game, in high school, with my friends,” she explained to me afterwards. “But I do remember Ebbets Field, it was so tall and intimidating.” When I asked her why she only went to one game as a kid, she explained that Brooklyn was and is a big place. Actually, in a way that only a New Yorker can, she claimed that Brooklyn was bigger than some states. “All of the boroughs are.” I politely disagreed, but semantics about Brooklyn’s size aside, the fact of the matter was that she lived a few miles from Ebbets Field over in Bay Ridge, and back then that was a good distance further than we think of it today. A Google Maps search shows it would take about an hour to get from point A to B these days by train. In the ‘50’s, it probably took a lot longer.
My grandfather wasn’t much help in this regard, either. As a man who owned his own business, he spent nearly every waking moment working, and when he wasn’t working he was down at the hall with his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. If he was relaxing though, his indulgences were the odd pairing of chess and wrestling. Raised in Lebanon, baseball simply didn’t mean that much to him.
Like any good Brooklynite, though, my mother fondly remembers the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series team. It was the team’s first, and the only one they would win in Brooklyn. “That was a big deal,” she recalled after the movie. Ever the one to ask questions, my mother had plenty of them as we walked out of the theater. “Was Jackie paid the same as the other players? It seemed like the treated him fairly.” (He was.) “Was Ebbets Field as big as Fenway Park? Fenway reminds me a lot of Ebbets Field.” (It was, roughly — Ebbets sat 32,000 at the time, and for most of its existence Fenway has sat between 33,000-34,000). “Was Eddie Stanky a big deal? I don’t remember him like I remember Pee Wee Reese and the others.” (He wasn’t, but he wasn’t exactly a nobody either.)
But other than wanting to know if he was paid fairly, my mother didn’t have a lot of questions about Robinson following what we both agreed — aside from the scene with Ben Chapman/Steve the Pirate — was a very enjoyable movie. “I just remember him as one of the guys you always heard a lot about,” she said, when I pressed her on what she remembered about Robinson. And perhaps that is fitting. My mother didn’t remember Jackie Robinson as the trailblazer that he was, because by the time she reached a conscious age Robinson had already blazed the trail, already changed the world — or at the very least, her world. To her, he wasn’t “Jackie Robinson, breaker of the color barrier.” To her, he was “Jackie Robinson, one of ‘Dem Bums.”