'42' seems to get Jackie Robinson story told right
As a sports nut, when a sports movie hits the big screen I’ve got to take it in.
Back in 1977 when Paul Newman actually laced up the skates and did his own stunts playing minor league hockey has been Reggie Dunlop in “Slap Shot” it was a can’t miss.
Oh how this classic sports flick really portrayed what went on both on and off the ice in hockey’s bush leagues.
Being fortunate to serendipitously be in the crowd back at Notre Dame Stadium in 1992 while some scenes from the movie “Rudy” were being shot made that film’s debut a rare family affair. We all gathered to see if we made the final cut, or, as it turned out, the cutting room floor.
So when the first previews of “42” the story of Brooklyn Dodger’s Branch Rickey’s bold plan to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier showed up in theaters months ago it got penciled in on the gotta’ see and hear in Dolby on the real big screen now, not the flat screen at home on Netflix.
Last Sunday I chiseled out some time to see how Hollywood decided to portray Jackie Robinson’s story of becoming the first African-American to play in big league baseball.
Not knowing much other than cursory knowledge of Robinson and his storied character, I wanted to find out how much the film might have been “Hollywooded,” and how much creative license producers and directors used to get their story across.
One thing the special effects folks seemed to get right was how they portrayed some of the old ballparks, especially Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with its deep center field and the cavernous Polo Grounds in New York City.
The journey through Robinson’s private life before baseball stardom was enlightening and showed how he learned many of the coping mechanisms he’d need in his much more public existence.
Was it true as Robinson’s Kansas City Monarch’s team bus rolled into a backwoods gas station to fill-up the tanks that when he was unable to use the only washroom, the suggestion they fill up their 99-gallon tank elsewhere suddenly desegregated the place?
If one were to find out Robinson often stood his ground for both his civil rights, and the rights of others, then that’s probably a real incident.
Robinson had a history of run-ins with authority, both at Pasadena Junior College standing up for a friend, and later in the Army where he beat Rosa Parks to the punch for refusing to sit in the back of the bus.
Robinson’s ability to stand his ground, however, was of paramount concern for Rickey who knew his signing with the Dodgers would elicit nastiness and rancor at the highest level.
And it did, especially with the constant racial epithets Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman unleashed. Amazing to think how widely accepted the practice was at the time. But Chapman’s racial railings ultimately cost him not only his job with the Phillies, but also has career as he never managed again after the 1947 season.
It piqued my curiosity to learn more about things I saw – and didn’t see – in the movie about the Georgia-born and Pasadena, Calif. raised, Robinson.
Robinson had success at Pasadena Junior College. He would move on to UCLA where he lettered in baseball, basketball, football and track from 1939-41.
It was interesting to learn that arguably, Robinson was a better track athlete than a baseball player. This was especially true in his time as a Bruin where in his only season playing baseball he batted just .097. But he knew he could never make a living at track, where Robinson won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump.
He left UCLA just shy of graduation in 1941, was drafted into the Army following Pearl Harbor and served stateside. After a much-delayed commission as a second lieutenant, Robinson joined the “Black Panther’s” tank battalion.
It wasn’t long after that the incident where he refused to sit in the rear of a desegregated Army bus. A long legal battle ensued where Robinson was acquitted by a panel of nine all white officers. He received an honorable discharge in November 1944.
After traveling down a number of different roads, including serving as a collegiate athletic director and even playing some pro football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Football League, Robinson would take a friend’s advice. He would try out with Kansas City who paid him $400 a month to bat .387 and steal 13 bases in less than 50 games.
In 1945 he was invited to meet Rickey who signed Robinson to a minor league contract paying $600 a month to play with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm team in the International League. He’d play a year in Montreal, led the league in hitting with a .349 average and was named the league’s MVP.
Robinson got his call up to the Dodgers just prior to the start of the 1947 season, making his debut at Ebbets Field April 15 in front of over 26,000. After batting .297 he’d go on to become the first ever Major League Baseball Rookie-of-the-Year. He’d put his track speed to work leading the league with 29 stolen bases, too.
And the rest is of course baseball history that is very well documented.
Thinking that if Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were both still alive, they’d both agree to give “42” a thumbs-up.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.