42: baseball, a black man, and democracy

In the universe of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy created by Douglas Adam, the number 42 is the answer to the ultimate question behind the universe’s existence. In our universe, 42 is the only number that was retired from the world of baseball. Before its retirement, 42 is the symbol of racism in the field. The number was on the back of the first black man in history to play in white only baseball league, the one and only, Jackie Robinson.


Set in 1945, just shortly after the World War II ended, the movie 42 showed what normal life in America was like. People continued their lives, soldiers were back at homes, baseball players were also back in the fields, hitting balls and scoring instead of firing bullets and killing people, and black people were back to where they belonged, on the lower level in society.

The act of segregation, widely known as Jim Crow Law, did not only put black people on the back side of the bus, it also put them outside the teams playing in Major League Baseball. Segregation happened even in sports, where a game is supposed to be played under different set of rules. White people and Negros (or more offensively, Nigger) could not and should not play together. Negros did not belong in the field, because baseball was a game belonged exclusively to white people.

The story of Jackie Robinson portrayed in the movie is the brilliant example on racism in American culture. This case is very interesting not only because it portrays racism in US, which was and still is considered as the champion of democracy and human rights, but also because of its timing.

 * * *

American Democratic Culture Hypocrisy

Democracy was adopted, domesticated, bred, and exported by Uncle Sam. One of the most well-known, not to mention the simplest, definition of democracy is the words of one of US former presidents, Abraham Lincoln. In his most monumental speech, he defined democracy as “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.[1]” In the same speech, known as Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stressed the importance of equality among all Americans. It was even mentioned in the first line of the speech that “all men are created equal.[2]”

Democracy is about majority and minority living together in equality. Discrimination against minority is surely not an element of democracy. If anything, discrimination violates the true spirit of democracy, in which everyone is equal. Racialism, as a form of discrimination based on race, is also classified as violation of the spirit of democracy by the same logic.

Like previously mentioned before, this movie is set after US triumphant victory in the World War II, in which it defeated the cruel enemy and massive human rights abuser known as Nazi Germany. It is in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published shortly after the war ended, which American very own Harry Truman took part in drafting, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.[3]” Ideally, the declaration should have reflected American  attitude and policy towards equality in human rights. However, the movie 42 showed us the hypocrisy behind American foreign policy. It promoted democracy, emphasizing on the importance of equality and human rights, when its own society still discriminated people based on skin color.

 * * *

The Shaping of A Culture

Just like baseball, democracy is played in team. There has to be a willingness from all players including the majority, if not all members of society, to make and accept any changes. To rephrase the words from ‘The Ball Game’, a song by Sister Wynona Carr which was played before the credits in the movie, “Democracy is a ballgame, and everybody can play.”

America is a democratic country. Its culture is shaped by its people, and changes as its society changes. However, like it or not, culture is mainly shaped by the majority. In the case of racialism, the white people.

Racism had been a part of American culture since the British first started its colony there. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, more and more Africans were brought to the continent to be enslaved. This slavery system created the misperception that Africans were there to be enslaved, and that Caucasian people (white people) were their masters due to racial superiority. This misperception was inherited by upcoming generations. Younger generations were exposed to racialism since they were children, and constant exposure influenced their minds. They think that racialism was normal because they had never been exposed to other values, like the child in the movie who learnt to call black people names because everyone around him did so. Even after the slavery system was formally abolished by Civil Right Act in 1864, people still saw black people as inferior race, because misperception is a part of culture that could not be changed overnight. It had rooted to almost every aspect in the society, from politics to baseball.

Not only did white people think that it was normal to put black people on lower level on society, black people also thought the same way. After being enslaved for many generations, they started accepting and feeling inferior. They endured discrimination, because they thought that they could not do anything else. Racialism as a culture had become an effective tool for white people to rule over black people. That is why both Rickey and Jackie Robinson were very important. They were the first deviants. They violated the values and norm held dearly by American society for so many years, Ricky by inviting Jackie to white only team and Jackie by fighting back and refusing to be discriminated against (he refused to sit on the back side of the bus, he refused to fill his bus tank because the owner did not let him use the white only toilet, etc.).

Deviants like Rickey and Robinson are often considered as, well, deviants. They broke the values and norm in society, they were going against the culture,  they were the mad men. Sometimes, these deviants are punished and oppressed that they do not disobey the culture again. But in the case of Rickey and Robinson, they became the pioneers that brought the changes in American society and its racialism culture.

* * *


There are many points we can learn from the movies. First, the truth that America as the salesman of democracy still had problem in implementing democratic culture in its society. Second, racialism was a part of culture that had been inherited by American people, both black and white, and accepted as the standard in the society. Third, deviants can be the ones who bring changes in society and its culture. Fourth, culture is changing and dynamic, but changes in culture do not happen overnight, it took more than a home run for American to finally accept Jackie Robinson on baseball field.

It took figures like Jackie Robinson and Rickey to break the so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ which drew the color line in baseball, splashing a little color on the all-white league. It took even longer, exactly a hundred years, since Lincoln liberated African-American from slavery to abolish Jim Crows Act[4], making discrimination formally illegal and simultaneously acknowledging African-American as an equal to white ‘True American’. It took time to shape the  great American culture we know now, the tolerant and diverse culture Uncle Sam is now very proud of.

Everything takes time. If you do not believe me, just look at America.


[1] Lincoln, Abraham. 1863. “Gettsyburg Address” (Bliss Copy). Retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[2] Lincoln, Abraham. 1863. “Gettsyburg Address” (Bliss Copy). Retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/truman-humanrights/

[4] 1864 and 1964, respectively.


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