MILWAUKEE -- With the image of her father and his famous jersey number frozen on a massive screen behind her, Sharon Robinson stood in front of a group of eager students, ready to take questions.
"In "42," you see that Jackie Robinson was a great athlete, right?" Robinson said.
And before her, a group of middle schoolers nodded in agreement. Robinson went on.
"But you see more than that, don't you?"
The students replied in the affirmative again, and Robinson continued.
"Can anybody tell me what more they saw in Jackie Robinson while seeing this film?"
And at that moment, hands shot up like they were spring-coiled in a jack-in-the-box. Self-control, one student said. Bravery, said another. Strong and powerful. Very determined. He never gave up.
And with each passing answer, there came another nod. It came from Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.
"You just saw, in this film, the most important and powerful moment in baseball history," Selig said. "There are a lot of great things that have happened over the years, but I have often said that Jackie Robinson's coming to the big leagues on April 15, 1947, is not only the most powerful moment, but the most important moment."
Selig, Sharon Robinson and the Brewers gave teenagers, ranging from grades six through eight from Roosevelt Middle School in Milwaukee, the opportunity to see it etched in film on Tuesday in a private screening of the acclaimed film, "42" at a nearby theater in Mequon, Wis. Thousands more students across the United States and Canada will see the film in the coming weeks at local theaters, courtesy of Major League Baseball and its 30 teams. Students will see the film free of charge and can share their experience online via iam42.com.
It stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Academy Award nominee Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey in the tale of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in the 1940s. It took in $27.5 million in its opening weekend, marking the best opening weekend ever for a baseball movie, according to multiple industry references.
"I hope to your generation, to all of you, you'll begin to understand what Jackie Robinson meant to baseball, but more importantly to this country," Selig told the students. "I believe Jackie Robinson was one of the two to three most important people in the 20th century."
Sharon Robinson has worked alongside Selig and Major League Baseball executives for 16 years, helping develop the Breaking Barriers in Sports and Life organization, a baseball-themed character education program that teaches students about life by way of baseball as a metaphor. Its curriculum is based on values Jackie Robinson demonstrated in his quest to break baseball's color barrier, and it asks students to write an essay about barriers or obstacles they have faced in their lives, which Sharon Robinson says is encompassed in the film. And when Selig first saw "42," he called Sharon Robinson and her mother, Rachel, to express his desire for children everywhere to see it.
| "I believe Jackie Robinson was one of the two to three most important people in the 20th century." |
|-- Commissioner Bud Selig |
Selig has also recently created an On-Field Diversity Task Force in baseball to address the talent pipeline that impacts the representation and development of diverse players and on-field personnel in baseball, particularly African-Americans. Tuesday, Selig answered a question from a student about what Jackie Robinson would think about racism today.
"We've done well," Selig said. "But we need to do better. I think that's what he would say. We've done well, given where we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago. We've done well. But we need to do much better, and we're working on a lot of things. It's an ongoing problem, but I'm proud of baseball."
Selig pointed to baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which boasts alumni including CC Sabathia, Justin Upton and Jimmy Rollins, and also to the Urban Youth Academies in Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati and Compton, Calif.
"We're trying to extend the legacy of all this, and it's really very important to all of us and certainly to me," Selig said. "I think we're making progress. It's slow, but I think you're going to find it in both front offices and on the playing field in the coming years through all the work we've done in these various programs."
The fate may lie in the answer to the first question asked of the students when the film credits finished and the house lights went up. They were asked how they liked it, and they cheered with approval.
"I've gotten so many comments from people that have taken their kids to see movies and about how their kids now have a renewed interest in baseball," Sharon Robinson said. "I think we'll carry our share and get urban kids playing the game. We certainly have seen it with the RBI program. It's grown to 200 cities and it's strong and growing. I've also heard parents say their kids now want to wear 42.
"So I think it will be an inspirational message."
Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.