When Joel Ward signed a free agent deal to join the Washington Capitals in the summer of 2011, he changed more than just his address. After sporting uniform No. 29 during his days with the Nashville Predators, Ward decided to change to No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson, the man who altered the course of sports history when he broke the color line in major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
Last night at AMC Mazza Gallerie in the District, Ward hosted and introduced a special advance screening of the Warner Brothers film “42,” a biopic on Robinson’s trials and travails as the first black player in the major leagues. Several of his Capitals teammates supported him with their attendance as well.
Ward’s family hails from Barbados; his parents immigrated to Montreal and later settled in the Toronto area. As a West Indian-Canadian, he was aware of the basics of Robinson’s story from a young age, but didn’t realize the magnitude of what Robinson had endured and what a heroic trailblazer he had been until he was a pro athlete himself.
“It really hit me when I was in Nashville,” remembers Ward. “I used to talk about Jackie Robinson a lot around the locker room, and a blogger in Nashville overheard me and he gave me the biography. Then I tackled the biography.
“I knew the gist of the story, but after reading the biography and getting all the details, I was convinced that I wanted to change my number. How one man could go through an era – late ‘40s and ‘50s – playing baseball in a locker room where you’ve got your own teammates hating you just because of the color of your skin, it gives me chills just to think about it. What a story, and what an inspiration that one man could overcome all of that and succeed at the same time.”
Robinson bore a lot of weight on his ample shoulders when he first donned the Dodgers flannel jersey emblazoned with the No. 42 nearly 66 years ago. The film depicts the crushing racism that Robinson faced and dealt with daily from all sides, even from within the Dodgers’ own clubhouse. The film also shows the courage of Robinson and a few others who bravely stood beside him and supported him.
While Robinson forged a path for all those who followed him in all sports, it’s also clear that 66 years isn’t long enough to erase the archaic concept of racism.
Last spring, after Ward scored the Game 7 overtime goal that ousted the Boston Bruins from the Stanley Cup playoffs, many gutless Bruins fans took to social media to hurl racial epithets – and worse – at Ward.
“One man can do that,” says Ward of Robinson, “but today in Western society we still have a long way to go when it comes to the topic of racism. I had to go through it in the playoffs and the fact that we still have people that judge people on the surface – on the color of their skin – is tough to swallow. But it’s reality to me. A story like this will hopefully inspire people. It really puts things in perspective on how we treat and view people.”
Robinson’s story is a grand one, a difficult one to condense into a two-hour film. Director and writer Brian Helgeland wisely tried not to make the film too broad in its scope. He covers a period of less than three years in Robinson’s eventful life, and watching it all unfold can lead to an uneasy feeling.
“I was chatting in the locker room with [Caps teammate] Wojtek [Wolski] about it,” says Ward. “Can you imagine being out there in an atmosphere where you don’t have anybody else except maybe your wife that’s supporting you and everybody else wants to see you fail? He also had the GM; Branch [Rickey] brought him in and hats off to him for taking the chance. But how did he survive going home after games? Where was he eating and sleeping? There are all these questions. It is chilling just to think about. We’ve come a long way; everyone is a little bit more accepting, but we definitely still have a ways to go.”
A few light moments of levity are sprinkled in amidst the heavy subject matter of the film. A running joke about a certain western Pennsylvania city drew more than a few laughs from the partisan D.C. crowd at Wednesday night’s screening.
Helgeland’s film shows great attention to dates and to detail. The baseball scenes offer solid depictions of players, parks, uniforms and equipment of a long bygone era. The film is enthralling to look at, from both a period and an aesthetic standpoint.
Robinson himself starred along with Ruby Dee in a 1950 film entitled “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Robinson has been the subject of several biographies over the years, his story continues to inspire many and it’s a subject you’d think would have received major motion picture treatment many years ago. Major League Baseball retired the uniform number 42 for all 30 MLB teams in 1997 as it commemorated the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s historic debut.
“People wonder why it’s taken so long,” says Ward. “It’s a story that everybody knows. Baseball retired the number. I definitely respect that. It brings back a lot of what they went through over those years. But I’m glad it’s out now. It’s a story I think is great for everybody to see regardless of background or color. I think it’s great for kids. It puts things in perspective a lot as to how we treat people.”
Inspired by Robinson and all that he endured so many decades ago, Ward decided to honor the baseball Hall of Famer in his own small way after joining the Capitals.
“When I read the book and then I came to D.C. and I was in a different chapter in my life, earning respect and gaining stability in the NHL,” recalls Ward. “I wanted to represent that number and pay tribute to somebody like Jackie Robinson. I love the number, I love the story, and to me it’s very inspirational every day just to try to be better. I’m glad I’m wearing it and hopefully I can represent it a quarter of what he did.”
Ward represents the No. 42 just as Robinson did, with dignity, poise and grace. Less than two weeks after his triumphant tally against the Bruins last spring, Ward experienced the other side of pro sports when his untimely and inadvertent hi-sticking minor late in Game 5 of the subsequent playoff series against the New York Rangers led to the Blueshirts scoring the tying and winning goals to send Washington to a crushing defeat.
When the Capitals’ locker room opened after the game, Ward was sitting stoically in his stall, awaiting the horde of media that descended upon him. He calmly and honestly answered every question of every reporter, and didn’t make a move toward the shower until all were answered.
“The story made me look at myself and ask if I could have done that or have gone through that,” says Ward. “I really don’t know. He wasn’t just there; he made an impact, too. He won awards, he won games and he made plays.
“You’d think that you’d have to shut down, you would think that you’d feel defeated at some point. That’s one of the things I took away from the story. He was never defeated, not in baseball and not in life. That’s what I try to live with. I try not to be defeated.”