I’ve been hearing the name Jackie Robinson a lot lately, and not just because a movie about him, “42,” had a bigger opening-weekend gross than any baseball movie ever.
I’ve been hearing it in the context of an intensifying drumbeat: that the “gay Jackie Robinson” is just weeks or months away.
We should retire the phrase now. It’s a flawed comparison.
As a few other observers have noted, it doesn’t do justice to Robinson’s experience and to the many differences between the challenges he confronted and those facing the first man or men to acknowledge being gay while still active in one of America’s four major professional sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey).
It doesn’t do any favors to the gay trailblazer. Robinson’s cleats — his place in history, his meaning then and now to a nation almost cleaved in two by racism — are pretty much impossible to fill. There’s only one number in major league baseball no longer put on players’ jerseys, in tribute to the titan who wore it. That’s 42. His number.
I’m shocked that Robinson never got a splashy Hollywood movie before. I wish the current one were better. It paints with too broadly sentimental a brush, giving us a Robinson who’s more icon than individual.
But it’s still an important, stirring reminder of our country in 1947, when he broke baseball’s color barrier. He couldn’t stay in hotels open to white teammates. Other teams’ pitchers threw at his head. The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies loudly taunted him with racial epithets as he stepped up to bat.
In laying out this galling ugliness, “42” elicits all the disgust and outrage it should.
The movie also makes clear that Robinson got his precedent-setting assignment not just because of his talent but because of his character. Branch Rickey, the team president who hired him, wanted and picked someone who might not buckle, as most men surely would, under such pressure and such a mantle.
The first openly gay player in a major sport could instead be an accidental and unwilling hero, hauled into history by a random photo, a talkative boyfriend, some other unintended exposure or the fear of it. That sort of messy scenario was suggested by Cyd Zeigler and Howard Bragman in a post on the sports website SB Nation. Its headline: “Hoping Our ‘Gay Jackie Robinson’ Isn’t the ‘George Michael of Sports.’ ”
Robinson was openly black, if you will, before he played in the big leagues, and what he ended in baseball was apartheid.
The trailblazer still to come will most likely have his place in the big leagues before he’s openly gay, and the frontier he’ll inhabit is not one of access — there have been and are gay players in the four major sports — but of candor. What he’ll end, or erode, is a culture of duplicity and denial. And if he hasn’t in fact been forced out of the closet, there will be a particular kind of decision and volition in his emergence.
It will in turn be met with a particular kind of scrutiny. Why didn’t he act sooner? What’s his motivation now? Is he creating an unnecessary distraction for his team?
At the league’s scouting combine in late February, concerned recruiters reportedly quizzed prospects about their sexual orientations. A month earlier, before he played in the Super Bowl, San Francisco’s Chris Culliver said, “We don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”
The first openly gay player in football, baseball, basketball or hockey will be tested, no question. With an extra measure of fame will come naysaying and nastiness.
And he’ll potentially have a huge impact, toppling certain stubborn stereotypes by “smashing through the closet door in the most masculine of our pastimes,” as Brian Ellner, a prominent gay rights advocate, said to me.
That burden and promise are noteworthy enough that whoever takes them on needn’t be framed in terms of anybody else. But there’s one Robinson analogy I’ll indulge.
In a few emotional scenes, “42” emphasizes his special meaning to black children, who see in him a future they weren’t sure they had. The first linebacker or center fielder to say “I’m gay” will be a similar agent of hope, assuring more than a few scared boys that glory and honesty are both possible, even in our country’s sacred cathedrals of sport.