Ben Chapman was a slightly above-average Major League hitter for parts of 15 seasons. He was, for a time, teammates with Babe Ruth, and a member of the 1932 World Champion Yankees. For his career, he batted .302, with 90 home runs. His game seems to have been based more on speed: he led the American League in triples once, and stolen bases a handful of times.
I know those things because I looked them up.
Ben Chapman was a racist, who, as manager of the Phillies, mercilessly heckled Jackie Robinson during Robinson’s rookie year in 1947. He was fired in mid-1948 and never managed again. Up until 10 minutes ago, that was everything I knew about him.
Chapman was a minor character in the movie 42. His racist taunts play a role in advancing the narrative of Robinson’s struggles as he adjusted to Major League Baseball (and as it adjusted to him). The film is entirely unsympathetic to Chapman. At the movie’s end, narrative cards tell us what eventually happened to many of the major and minor characters. Robinson won a World Series in 1955 and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame; Chapman was fired in 1948 and never managed again. The audience is made to feel that both characters received their just rewards.
I watched 42 last night with my children. They know who Jackie Robinson was from school, having learned about him (among others) during African-American History Month in February. Some of the slower parts bored them, but they still followed it. The baseball scenes appealed to them, and Nora, whose sense of right and wrong is very well developed, latched on tightly to the social justice aspects of the story. I asked her what she thought of the movie.
“That manager was a jerk,” she said. She lowered her face to conceal a small grin as she recounted the scene where Robinson’s teammate Eddie Stanky confronted Chapman. “I liked it when that other player called him a piece of shit.” Her reticence in repeating the offending word, even in quoting the movie, amused me.
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “That was a good part.”
Chapman of course had no way of knowing that a movie on Robinson would ever be made. No way of knowing that the only thing people might know about him 26 years after his death was that he was kind of an asshole to a legendary baseball player and American icon. In that light, it’s a little unfair to make a villain of someone unable to defend himself. But we all will die some day. We all will have obituaries written. And some of us may even be portrayed in a book or a movie about someone we know, even if we know that person only in passing. It’d be nice if more of us chose not to be the asshole of someone else’s story.