Friday, April 12, 2013

Life, the universe and Jackie Robinson


The number 42 has had a significance to me long before I knew much, or perhaps anything, about Jackie Robinson.

Just as it has for anyone who grew up reading Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

It's more involved than this, but here's a tidy summary from wikipedia:

"In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was."

As is the case with anything brilliant and wonderful you read, it sticks with you a lot longer, and comes up in a lot more situations than you ever would think it should. Hence, I basically cannot hear the number 42 these days without thinking of Deep Thought and its perplexing calculation. When my wife turned 42 back in February, I even quoted The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in her birthday card. She appreciated that.

So what does this all have to do with baseball?

Well, Jackie Robinson, the first man to break Major League Baseball's color barrier back in 1947, wore #42. To honor this feat, baseball retired Robinson's number on all teams, not just the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers, back in 1997, to mark 50 years since the landmark achievement.

It's doubtful that Douglas Adams, a young humorist living in England, had any sense of the American significance of this number (nor that Americans themselves had much of a sense of it at the time) when he launched Hitchhiker's as a BBC radio series back in 1978. (And can I just say that it's blowing my mind to learn that this brand originated as a radio series, not as a book. I thought it had been the other way around.) It probably just seemed to him like an absurdly random number somewhere between 1 and 100. He probably used similar logic to what you and I use when we are looking to exaggerate a number, but not too much. ("I've checked my email 42 times in the last five minutes," you might say.)

I guess you could say this number is almost equally important to me for the two different reasons. Baseball now means a lot more to me than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but Adams' book did come along to me first, and found me at a perfect time to play an essential role in molding my sense of humor and giving me a bottomless appreciation for the absurd. (Actually, they came along very close to the same time, as it turns out. I read at least some of those books in the summer of 1986 when my family was vacationing in England, and I became a baseball fan that fall when the Red Sox went to the World Series. I'd like to say that was the year I turned 14, which is a factor of 42, but alas, it was the year I turned 13.)

Still, I don't know if it's quite enough to get me out to the movies to see 42. Suddenly the films I want to see in the theater are starting to really conglomerate, and my genuine interest in seeing a Jackie Robinson biopic is still slightly less than my antipathy for sports movies in general. (I've discussed this irony before, that I love sports but don't love sports movies, so I won't get into it again right now.) But if I don't make it out to the theater to see this movie, I'll be first in line to rent it on DVD.

The other half of this irony on my perspective on sports movies vs. actual sports is that my wife is just the opposite. She doesn't care a lick for "sport" (as Australians call it) but she damn near loves sports movies. In fact, every time the ad for 42 comes on, she mentions that she wants to see it. It's especially funny because my wife hasn't see anything in the theater since before Christmas, when she took in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This could be the one to end her drought.

I suppose it could just be this: She's of the exact age to be seeking out the answers to life's great questions.

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