EDITOR’S NOTE: C.J. Nitkowski, a Suffern native, pitched for eight teams in the major leagues from 1995-2005, then played pro baseball in Japan and South Korea. He portrays Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard in the current film “42.”
He didn’t open any doors for me. He didn’t pave any way. He didn’t give me the hope that I could do anything I aspired to in a country where some viewed me as less of a man. He didn’t give me the courage to forge ahead despite the circumstances surrounding me.
Jackie Robinson was just never a hero to me.
Jackie broke the color barrier in major-league baseball on April 15, 1947, and he died in 1972. I was born in 1973 and really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on in the world until at least 50 years after Jackie’s historic debut as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We just never connected. He was a historical at best figure to me, as distant as Babe Ruth and JFK.
And so, when baseball began recognizing Jackie every April, the question would always be presented: “What effect did Jackie Robinson have on you as a major-league ballplayer?”
I could give each reporter or radio host the best politically correct answer you’ve ever heard. Ask me to be completely honest with you and what I would have said was, “None.”
I grew up in a predominantly white New York City suburb. I was a Yankees fan who, as a kid, idolized Willie Randolph, their star second baseman in the ’80s. Willie had more influence on me than Jackie ever did. Despite being left-handed, I wanted to be him. There were no thoughts of black or white. I didn’t know the game or life any other way.
From 2007-10, I played baseball in Asia, and for the first time in my life, I was a minority. As the seasons went on, I started experiencing what I felt like to be treated less than fairly.
The conclusions I drew were that it was simply because of my race, not because of my actions. I was criticized more harshly than my teammates, expectations were higher for me, and I was given less of a chance. I was under what I perceived as an unfair microscope, and I was always looking over my shoulder.
Things reached a pinnacle during one game, and the emotions that followed were raw and not anything like my personality. I didn’t handle it well. I was full of ill thoughts. I wanted to lash out. I wanted to cause pain to those that I felt were suppressing my career.
I had never felt that way before, but what drew this out of me was the belief that I was being judged and underappreciated for no other reason but the fact that I was white.
In those moments, I thought of some of my past Latino teammates. Many over the years who struggled to adjust, to get comfortable and would even get so defensive that they wouldn’t trust anybody. I could never completely understand their behavior — I thought it was foolish; I thought they were paranoid. But now I got a very small taste of what that was like, and I hated it. I wanted retribution. I wanted somebody to pay.
I was fortunate to get a role in the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” portraying Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard. I pitch to Jackie three times and knock him down, but I don’t drill him.
My scenes take place at the same time as those depicting Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman. The scenes and the language are critical to the movie. Writer-director Brian Helgeland knew the importance of bringing this part of Jackie’s experience to his film, regardless of how uncomfortable.
Chapman demeans Jackie in some of the most vile and disgusting ways one man could tear down another. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard insults that awful before, at least not to that degree and with that intent, filled with hate and pure disgust for the man they were directed toward.
In the movie, you’ll hear it once and its effect will be powerful. As a member of the cast, I heard it for hours upon hours the day we were shooting the scene. Multiple takes from multiple angles, it seemed like it would never end. You couldn’t help but be disturbed by the powerfulness of the language. One of the makeup women turned to me during one of Chapman’s takes and whispered, “I can’t wait for this day to be over.”
I’ll never experience anything close to what Jackie Robinson did in 1947, and neither will you, regardless of which race you are.
What this movie did for me and what I hope it does for you is bring Jackie’s awful experiences to life. It forced me to absorb what his experience was really like. It shamed me into feeling embarrassed by how I handle my own minute interpretation of injustice.
The 70-year anniversary of Jackie breaking the color barrier is not that far away. Few remain who witnessed his debut and soon they will be gone. But I now feel I know who Jackie Robinson really was and what 1947 was really like for him.
No longer do I have to feign my way through admiration for him. It is sincere, and I’ll be a better man for it.
AP Photo/Nikkan Sports, Satoshi Tameda