Saturday, May 11, 2013

42: Jackie Robinson, Fritz Ostermueller and the Sanitizing of American History

For most people, racism is an ugly and abhorrent practice: it is a human sickness that should be eradicated from American society.

Unfortunately, racism is as American as apple pie. Truth be told, when looking at the legacy of racism in America it is hard not to wince.

As former Secretary of State, and conservative Republican, Condoleezza Rice noted: Racism/slavery is the birth defect of our country.

In an interview with The Washington Times this week, Rice said that Black Americans were a founding population of this country.
"Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together - Europeans by choice and Africans in chains," she said. "That's not a very pretty reality of our founding."
"Descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that," she told The Washington times.
"That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today," she said. source

Blatant, cruel, violent and nasty racism is hard to look at -- especially after the passing of time and the err of our sins are all too obvious. We ask: were we actually that inhuman to our brothers/sisters? Consequently, many white Americans -- not wanting to be locked in the  guilt of being an oppressor-- boldly confront not just racism per se, they recognize the need to address the inequities resulting from centuries of institutional racism.

To the honest broker, slavery was not some abstract that occurred ions ago. They understand that after outlawing legal chattel slavery, our country did not overnight become a citadel of freedom for people of color. They are cognizant that de facto slavery existed -- via sharecropping, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement and American Apartheid -- well into the 20th century.

But far too many Americans, steeped in the denial, want to revise history. They want to ignore the past as if it has no place or connection to the present. They want their American icons and myths romanticized and without any tarnish of reality.

A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country's founders being slave owners.  source

I call it: The sanitizing of American history.

And now, some families, friends and glossy-eyed sports writers are crying foul over the racist depictions of their fathers, grandfathers and sports idols in the movie about Jackie Robinson called 42.

Here's one example:

When a racist pitcher beans Jackie Robinson in the head in the new movie about the first black man to play major league baseball, Sherrill Duesterhaus wants everybody in the theater to know it's a lie.
Duesterhaus' father, Fritz Ostermueller, threw the pitch, but it did not hit Robinson in the head and there is no evidence he uttered, "You don't belong here and you never will," as shown in "42," the Warner Bros. Pictures film that opened in April.
"I respect Jackie Robinson, his story is so inspiring and it's good that it is out there, but not at the expense of someone's good name," said Duesterhaus, 66, of Joplin, Missouri.
Duesterhaus said she had been warned by a friend that the film was unflattering to her father, who died of cancer at age 50 when she was 11 years old.
But the scene in which he taunts Robinson and throws at his head was still a shock, she said.
"It just took my breath away," Duesterhaus said. "I thought, 'All these people are sitting here believing this and it didn't happen.' It broke my heart."
She said her father was a "kind and loving man" and neither she nor her mother can recall him talking badly about Robinson or any black player.
Duesterhaus produced an article from a Pittsburgh newspaper in 1947 in which her father said Robinson crowded the plate, making pitching to him difficult. Ostermueller played for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time.
"I told my wife the night before I pitched that I might have trouble with Robinson - that one of my pitches would hit him, if he didn't move back," Ostermueller said in the article.
"I knew, too, some people would say it was intentional. It wasn't at all, but in his first trip to the plate I hit him. After that, he moved back a couple of inches and showed me some respect."  source

Granted, the movie -- as all Hollywood biopic films do -- took some artistic license to exaggerate (for the sake of building tension) certain scenes in 42. But make no mistake, pitchers like Fritz Ostermueller did intentionally taunt and throw at Robinson's head. Read on:

Was Jackie Robinson hit in the head with a wild pitch from the Pittsburgh Pirates Fritz Ostermueller?

In examining the 42 movie true story, we discovered that Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller hit Jackie in the elbow during that 1947 game, not the head. The only reason the pitch didn't hit him in the head was that Jackie lifted his arm to shield his face. Former Pirate Jim Russell later said that Ostermueller had been ordered to take Robinson down. Overall, Jackie was hit by nine pitches during his rookie season. -Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I lament that Hollywood over-dramatized this particular scene. But Ostermueller would have beaned Robinson in the head if Jackie did not have cat-like reflexes. However, since the hit to the head did not occur as a result of Ostermueller's pitch, the movie probably should have used a composite fictitious character in depicting Jackie's perilous at-bats.

That being said, we should neither turn away our heads nor bury our heads in sand because of the inconvenience of truth. Racism was and is real. Racism has direct consequences. And while I deplore using racism as a go-to crutch or an excuse for failure (education and personal discipline are the antidotes), we can not ignore our past lest our past become prologue.

For our country to truly heal from the disease of racism, it would be wise to borrow from a 12 Step recovery program and use (a modified version of AA) steps 4 to 12.
  • Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admit to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • To become entirely ready to remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly ask to remove our shortcomings.
  • Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continue to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitt it.
  • Seek through action, prayer and meditation to improve our society.
  • Having a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, try to carry this message and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

No comments:

Post a Comment