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Keller's Comics Corner: Jackie Robinson Day Special

For decades, April 15 meant only one thing to the majority of Americans - the dreaded annual deadline for filing personal income taxes. But in 2004, Major League baseball changed all that. Now, baseball fans across America look forward to that day to celebrate the anniversary of desegregation of Major League Baseball by looking at their now-useless scorecards and wondering which "42" on the field is which player.

Needless to say, baseball was hardly the only American institution with a racism problem prior to 1947. Comic books had almost no non-white characters, and when they did include any, the results tended to be insulting caricatures. Captain America's sidekick, Bucky - in the comics a teenager to Steve Rogers's adult hero rather than the same-aged partner that Sebastian Stan's cinematic version is - was a member of a "kid gang" group (like the then-popular Our Gang or Dead End Kids) called the Young Allies, which included this most cringeworthy character:

Whitewash Jones 1941

As American society moved beyond any sense of this being OK, so did the world of comic books. The next time Captain America had an African-American in his supporting cast, it was the much less offensive (but still somewhat stereotyped) Falcon. For a good long time, though, this contemporary change of attitude among comic book creators was reflected purely in the contemporary attitude of comic book characters. Certainly, given the above image, it's clear that the Captain America of the 1940's comics showed no concern for racial equality, but there was also little evidence of it in the immediate aftermath of his 1964 thawing by the Avengers. Slowly but surely, Marvel Comics altered its fictional universe's history to be more racially diverse. In 1978, they introduced the Human Top, an African-American 1940's hero. In 2003, they published the mini-series Truth: Red, White and Black, which told the story of a Tuskeegee-like U. S. Government experiment which created the secret "Black Captain America," Isaiah Bradley (portrayed by Carl Lumbly the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Falcon and Winter Soldier series). In 2009, in the "Young Allies 70th Anniversary Special" (though it was actually only 68 years since that team first appeared), they addressed the troublesome imagery of the past (as in example above) by "lampshading" it as a propaganda comic book horribly distorting the (in-universe) real-life adventures of much more acceptable characters, objectionable to the subject himself, actually young Tuskeegee Airman Washington Carver Jones.

Wash Jones 2011

The following year, with Captain America about to star in his own feature film, it was time to modernize his comic-book attitudes as well. This occurred in the 5-issue mini-series Captain America: Man out of Time:

Captain America Man Out of Time Cover

Background

Captain America: Man out of Time was a five-issue series re-imagining the star-spangled hero's earliest 1960's appearances in Avengers # 4-8 as taking place in a more modern setting, and much more focused on Cap as an individual rather than the group adventures of the Avengers. The simpler super-hero adventures written back then simply had the recently-awakened man pretty much moving full-steam ahead with his restored life. The new series recognized that there is mental and emotional adjustment required for someone from the past unexpectedly waking up to the modern world. (Admittedly, the world of 1964 was much more similar to the world of 1945 than the more modern setting of this revisionist series.) In the new version of the story, he at first thinks he's dreaming, and after the Avengers who were meant to introduce him to the new world go missing, gets himself shot to unconsciousness while attempting to stop what he thinks is a mugging or other assault, but is actually a drug deal in which the "victim" he thought he was saving was herself armed. He wakes up in a hospital and expresses delight at the fact that the African-American woman treating him is a doctor.

Play Ball! (Part 1)

As he leaves the hospital, he sees this baseball game on a TV in the lobby:

Baseball Game in Captain America

There is some fun to be had identifying real baseball games featured in fictional stories, such as the Cubs game in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In this scene, the TV clearly shows a game in which the Dodgers are visiting the Mets, and the Mets have a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning. The Mets pitcher appears to be a lefty, the batter is right-handed, and a tripod of identical circles in the lower right corner of the screen would seem to indicate that the bases are either empty or loaded.

Clues to narrow down the time frame can be found elsewhere in the issue. A news headline mentions programmers warning of the "Y2K Virus" (sic), which tells us that this takes place some time prior to 2000. Tony Stark, later in the series, tells Cap that the Soviet Union no longer exists, which places it after 1991. There is exactly one game that fits all these particulars - the second game of a double-header played on July 8, 1993. The pitcher in question is a lefty, Eric Hillman, and the batter would have to be Cory Snyder. The inning opened with the Dodgers behind 3-0, but they scored once and had a man on third when Snyder came to the plate. But three pitches in, Hillman balked in run # 2, creating a scene that matches the TV in the comic book panel. In the end, Snyder struck out to end the 6th inning. The Dodgers tied the score in the next inning, but the Mets won in the 10th, on a walk-off 3-run homer by the infamously still-getting-paid Bobby Bonilla.

There are some images that would indicate that 1993 is too early - Avengers sidekick Rick Jones is shown using a tabbed web browser, which didn't exist in the real world until 1994, and a cell phone with a built-in camera, which did not exist until 2002 (therefore also anachronistic due to the aforementioned headline suggesting that Y2K is still in the future, regardless of baseball-game speculation). Of course, we could write off the game as completely fictional, but I like to think that in a world where Iron Man armor and time machines exist, the idea that web browsers with tabs or cell phones with cameras existed a little earlier than they do in the real world is not too hard to swallow in order to play the "identify the real baseball game" game.

Background, continued

After Captain America leaves the hospital, Rick Jones finds him and the two of them manage to locate and restore the Avengers (they'd been turned to stone by an alien villain), during which time he has accepted that he is actually living some fifty years after the time he last remembers. He seeks a way to travel back in time to where he "belongs," discovering there actually is a time machine in the Marvel Universe of that era, invented by Doctor Doom and in the possession of the Fantastic Four. However, the Avengers know that sending him back, if even possible, might change history in unexpected ways. Tony Stark (in his civilian identity, acting merely as the Avengers' financial benefactor and not yet known by Cap or the others to actually be the Avenger Iron Man) tries to convince him to stay in the present, showing him the wonders of the modern world. Of all these wonders, Cap expresses the most awe not at technological progress (after all, he was friends with the original Human Torch, an android) but at the social progress, as least as recounted through Stark's eyes. Tony shows him footage of the huge multi-racial crowd attending Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and shows him a picture of the multi-racial crew that perished in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, assuring Cap (who specifically asked) that the nation mourned for all of them equally. This, however, does not convince Captain America to stop trying to return to 1945. It takes the President of the United States ordering Cap (who considered himself to still be an actively-serving American soldier) to stay in the present to make him accept his placement. (An aside about the anachronisms: although the President is always shown in deep shadow, the silhouette clearly resembles Barack Obama - by the same token, the cover of issue # 3 of he series has head shots of all presidents from F.D.R. onward, including George W. Bush and Obama, whose presidencies are in the series' future. I would guess that the artist was told that the story was set "in the current era", and only afterward made clear that the Captain America stories in his ongoing series requires that this series be backdated a bit so earlier adventures had time to have taken place.)

Thus grudgingly resigned, Captain America tries to look up old colleagues who survived into the present day, finding only one - General Jacob Simon (named for Cap's creators, Jack Kirby (real name Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon), an old man in a hospital bed in the last days of his life. Unlike Tony Stark, General Simon exposes Cap to the uglier side of recent American history. which Tony had glossed over:

Captain America learns of MLK

(While they spend time together, they also watch a baseball game on TV, but the image is so generic, it's not even worth writing in a new "Play Ball!" section. The scene exists for the general to express his disdain for the modern generation of players, who he accuses of being juiced and of just standing there to watch their home runs rather than hustle around the bases. He also hates the designated hitter. And wants you to get off his lawn.)

Not too long after renewing their acquaintance, General Simon passes away, leaving to Captain America a picture that Cap had given him back during World War II. Cap stows it in his closet in Avengers Mansion, just before the Avengers are summoned to repel the attack of Kang the Conqueror, this story re-imagining the first appearance of the Avengers arch-foe, a time-traveling warlord from the future (who will be played by Jonathan Majors in the upcoming MCU film Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). Using his vast war experience and his futuristic technology, Kang makes short work of Earth's mightiest heroes and moves to imprison them in future-tech prison cells, but Captain America avoids getting locked in and assaults Kang's person. The time-travelling villain recognizes that Cap is "a man out of his time" (which is strange, because he hadn't time-traveled to the future, but had slept through the decades and physically, at least, does belong to the era he is in) and sends him back in time to August 14,1945, the night on which Japan formally surrendered, ending World War II.

Play Ball! (Part 2)

Steve Rogers, ever the proud Brooklynite, wastes no time re-acclimating to the world of 1945, and attends the next day's game at Ebbets Field. The writers clearly did their research (or got very lucky), as the Dodgers did indeed play at home on V-J Day, and Eddie Stanky, one of the worst-hitting regulars on the team, did get a hit (to lead off the bottom of the first, so the scene depicted could have taken place at almost any point during the game). He spots an African-American father and son sitting in isolation, and, as racial equality is clearly important to the character in this series, leaves the mostly white crowded area to sit with them:

Captain America reaches out

(Sadly, the boy's optimism about the Dodgers went unrewarded; given that the Dodgers had come to bat in the bottom of the first, this scene must have taken place with the Dodgers in at least a 5-0 hole, and the game ended with the visiting Cubs winning 20-6 - the most runs they gave up and their biggest margin of defeat that year.)

Steve, despite his awareness that the future world he was in was imperfect, could not stomach the degree of racial oppression that he was witnessing in his "home" time, and no longer felt comfortable there. It would be less than two weeks later that Branch Rickey would meet with Jackie Robinson, setting in motion the events that would lead to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and eventually all other Major League teams as well, no longer being thought of as "a white man's club."

And now...the rest of the story

Aside from his renewed discomfort with the social mores of the 1940's, Captain America also felt dejected due to his having left the other Avengers as Kang's captives, possibly paving the way for Kang to conquer the world. He is resigned to this failure, however, as he sees no clear way that he might return to their time. But as he holds his Avengers identification card in his hand, he remembers that Tony Stark told him that it can send a distress signal, has a "lifetime" battery, and is fully programmable. He programs it to send a distress signal on the day of Kang's arrival, and hides it in the one thing he knows exists in 1945 and will survive to that day - the autographed picture he had given to General Simon which was bequeathed to him. He wraps the card in a note to contact Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four to use their time machine to retrieve him, and tells them precisely where he'll be at the given time. Rick Jones and the Wasp, who had escaped Kang's imprisonment of the Avengers, receive the signal and get Reed to retrieve Cap from 1945. Finally accepting that he belongs among the Avengers in their time, he confidently takes command of the battle against Kang and the Avengers send Kang packing. The series concludes with Captain America musing that his job, no matter when he finds himself to be, is to fight for a better future...and even if there are some battles that had been won in his absence, there is still much left to fight for, a sentiment that Jackie Robinson would no doubt agree with, were he still with us today.





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