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Jackie's selflessness had profound impact on America

Hall of Famer endured countless injustices to break baseball's color barrier

Jackie Robinson's story is of another place and time, another America. If you're of a certain age, you'll have trouble comprehending that it really existed. For many, it flickers only in the grainy black-and-white images of a different United States. We were once a nation almost completely separated by race.

Now that time and that place, with all its evil and all its injustice, has burst onto movie screens for mass audiences around the world with the opening of "42," a movie of beauty and power that will force us to again confront our country's uncomfortable past.

Thank you, Hollywood. Thank you, director Brian Helgeland. Thank you for telling this story and for introducing Jackie Robinson to another generation of Americans. Thank you for not over-sanitizing it.

On this Jackie Robinson Day around Major League Baseball, its honoree may soon be our country's most famous athlete, something he never was during 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His life will be discussed, debated and dissected in a way it never has been before, and that's hugely important because his impact was so profound.

In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute.

All the history books and documentaries and ceremonies that have focused on Robinson's remarkable life won't bring one-tenth the attention of a big, old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster. Based on the first wave of reviews, "42" has a chance to be just that.

Be prepared, mom and dad. Your children are going to want to know about Jackie, and if the United States was ever really like that -- if people really were brimming with hatred at the idea of a black man playing Major League Baseball.

Parts of "42" will make you uneasy. Still, as David Letterman said the other night, every man, woman and child in this country ought to see it. There's no way to tell Jackie Robinson's story honestly without focusing on some of the brutality and cruelty. To lay out all the indignities -- the curses and taunts, filthy hotels, death threats -- would have taken too long for one movie.

But enough of it is there. Harrison Ford lobbied for the role of Branch Rickey because he loved what the man stood for, and he wanted to help tell the story of how baseball's color line was broken in 1947.

Sixty-six years later, Jackie represents fairness and equality and basic human decency. He helped change the world, and along the way, he changed some hearts, too. Robinson didn't change them all, so there's still work to do. Even as we celebrate his life, he would want us all to be mindful of mountains yet to be climbed.

Know this: We are better because of him. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, Jackie forced people to see the world in a way they'd never seen it before. Once baseball changed, it became at least a little easier to change schools and restaurants and workplaces and voting booths.

If Rickey had not signed Robinson, who knows when America would have had its first black baseball player, or its second wave of great players. Was there another baseball executive out there with the guts to do it? For that matter, was there another player out there with the resolve to absorb the torture without responding?

If Jackie Robinson hadn't put on a Brooklyn Dodgers' uniform in 1947, would we have had Frank Robinson and Willie Mays? How about Roberto Clemente? Robinson opened doors for him, too.

For that matter, how much more difficult would it have been for President Lyndon Johnson to compel Congress to outlaw segregation? Would we have elected a black man to the highest office in the land in 2008 without Jackie Robinson having the courage to do what he did when he did it?

Yes, Americans would have done the right thing at some point, but if Jackie hadn't arrived in 1947, if he hadn't been as large a man off the field as on, how would the world look today?

Major League Baseball has made sure that Jackie has a place on its Mount Rushmore, not just in retiring his No. 42, but in educating players about who he was and what he stood for.

Today, every team will honor Jackie Robinson. Every player will wear his No. 42. Baseball's message is that his memory must be kept alive and that his contribution to his game and his country must never be forgotten.

Robinson paid an incomprehensible price in the pain he endured and the responsibility he carried. Try to imagine having a job in which you showed up every day not knowing if some random nut would decide to kill you. Try to imagine being constantly reminded that you are a second-class citizen, to be taunted or spat upon or cursed. Oh, and being told to never respond, to turn the other cheek over and over.

When he accepted Rickey's invitation to break the color line in 1947, he understood that there'd be risks. He also understood how much one man could influence the rest of the world.

Jackie Robinson would eventually win over most of his teammates with his extraordinary talent and aggressive play. In fact, he probably was accepted as a baseball player before he was accepted as a man.

Once the Dodgers saw he could help them win, they looked at him in a different way. Once they got to know him, they saw that he was pretty much like them. No one will understand all he went through. Certainly, "42" captures some of it. His teammates saw parts of it. Mostly, though, the burden was his alone.

He impacted the world in a way we're all still trying to understand. Because of him, we're all better. That's why Major League Baseball sets this day aside to celebrate a wonderful life and the difference it made. Thank you, Jackie.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.