The Right Man For The Job

November 21, 2016

“He’s changing the world and refusing to let it change him.” In 2013, Hollywood worked with Jackie Robinson’s widow to create 42, the story of Robinson’s rookie season in Major League Baseball. 

 

Robinson broke the color barrier that had previously plagued America’s pastime. When he did so he was not alone. 42 introduces you to a few shoulders he leaned on along the way, as well as the adversaries that fueled his fire.

 

The film opens in 1945 with Wendell Smith, the man who would chronicle Robinson’s journey saying, “Baseball was proof positive that democracy was real. A baseball box score, after all, is a democratic thing. It doesn’t say how big you are or what religion you follow. It does not know how you voted or the color of your skin. It simply states what kind of ballplayer you were on any particular day.”

 

At this time in the USA racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws were still in effect. If a black man wanted to play baseball then he had to play in the Negro leagues. At the same time, within the Negro leagues, a similar battle was taking place. It is some irony that Toni Stone was breaking the gender lines, becoming the first female athlete to play with the men, at the same time that her teammates were struggling with the color lines.

 

On August 28, 1945 Robinson is brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers office to meet with Mr. Rickey. This is where the story of 42 begins. Robinson was offered an opportunity to start in the spring with Montreal to prove himself. When he did, he was moved up to Brooklyn. For his troubles he was paid $600/month (today $8,120 – $97,400k/year) plus a $3,500 ($47,368) signing bonus. At the time the average household wage was $2,400/year ($32,400).

It seems from the start that Branch Rickey understood the weight he was placing on Robinson. Not only was he well compensated but, as the movie shows, he received additional privileges including his own chronicler and spousal company during spring training. Before he signs the movie plays out a scene where Rickey is goading Robinson into arguing. Robinson says, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

 

Rickey replies, “No. I want a player whose got the guts not to fight back. Echo a curse with a curse and they’ll hear only yours. Answer a blow with a blow and they’ll say the Negro lost his temper. That the Negro does not belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. Only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our savior, you’ve gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

 

The GM was also quick to put in line any member of the organization, from players to coaches and even the commissioner of baseball himself, when challenged for his actions by white society.

 

The most difficult scene to stomach in the entire movie is also the most important. After a day filled with racial hatred Robinson hits his break point. It is in that moment that Rickey himself takes on the task of standing by Robinson. It was also a turning point for society’s acceptance of a black man in baseball.

 

 

Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Robinson, was asked about this scene. He had this to say, “You want it to happen, as an actor. As a person, you have to have your space. You have your space before and after the scene. You tell people to leave you alone. Don’t come over here right now. It could be dangerous for you. It could be dangerous for me. So you have to have a set where you’re given that protection. I think they provided that so you could get the most real experience on the screen.”

 

To white society Rickey backed his decision in dollars and cents. “NY’s full of Negro baseball fans. Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green. Every dollar’s green.” Only to Robinson, is the truth revealed.    

 

When released, some baseball folks who fancy themselves historical writers commented on the timeline or accuracy of the portrayal of certain events. Boseman says that Mrs. Robinson signed off on all versions of the script.

 

The script accurately reveals that many players on Robinson’s own team circulated a petition before meeting him, refusing to integrate. Pitcher Kirby Higbe was traded after he refused to play on an integrated team.

 

Though the movie portrays him at 1st base, Robinson spent his MLB career between 1st, 2nd and 3rd with the majority of his time, 5 seasons, at 2nd. Coming into the MLB, he was a trained shortstop.

 

Though the film only reveals Robinson’s story, the same year the American League Cleveland Indians signed centerfielder Larry Doby. Baseball historian Daniel Okrent wrote, "Robinson had a two year drum roll, Doby just showed up."

 

Robinson received more press and, as we learn in 42, that may be a result of Rickey’s own forethought. Robinson was assigned his own sports writer, Wendell Smith

 

Smith, who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier at the time, was personally assigned as the Robinsons’ chronicler during that first season in the MLB. In 1948, he became the first black sportswriter to join the Baseball Writer’s Association. Considering that he wrote throughout the 1947 season from the stands because black reporters were not allowed in MLB press boxes, that’s an achievement that should not be overlooked. With Robinson, Smith wrote the autobiography, My Own Story which was published in 1948. It is said that Smith immortalized Robinson as an athlete and not as an activist.

 

The movie shows however that the role was expected to be one of reputation protector. He was there to help keep Robinson’s stress levels down and train him for the media onslaught. Smith continued to write in support of black athletes. By 1961, over a decade after Robinson broke the color barrier, spring training facilities in the south were not yet fully integrated and he called out the MLB.

 

“Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south. The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training." Wendell Smith, Chicago's American, January 23, 1961.

 

The movie was nominated for 17 awards and took home three, primarily from African American film associations. Neither the Golden Globes or Academy gave the film a nod but they did take home a Hochi Film Award for Best Foreign Language Film in Japan. Perhaps that had to do with the poor box office results. As with so many films, don’t let the box office numbers, or the trophies, fool you.

  

When you take a look at Robinson’s life, you quickly begin to comprehend why the movie only covered this one event over just two seasons.

 

42 is not the first time Hollywood has immortalized Robinson’s life. The initial undertaking hit the silver screen in 1950 when Robinson portrayed himself in The Jackie Robinson Story

 

Life

Born in Georgia in 1919, Jackie Robinson was the youngest of five children. The family moved to Pasadena, California where he was raised by a single-mother. Robinson became the first athlete to letter in four sports at UCLA, as well as the first man to cross the color barrier in the MLB, but he was not the only superstar in the family. Robinson’s older brother Mack was a world-class track star who finished 2nd in the 200-yard dash to Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany.

 

In 1942, Robinson was drafted into the army where he served stateside but that did not mean his service was without incident. As a commissioned army officer he was court marshaled for refusing to move to the back of a military bus when instructed to do so by the white driver in segregated TX. In the 1944 trial he was facing a dishonorable discharge but prevailed and was honorably released. Due to the services refusal to integrate their baseball team, Robinson did not play baseball between the ages of 21-26. As a stand against this policy, Robinson chose to sit out the other sports he could have played. In the film GM Rickey said of the decision, “He resents segregation. If he were white, you’d call that spirit.”

 

Following his retirement from sports Robinson continued to be comfortable in the number one spot. He became the first black VP of a major American corporation. In 1965, he joined ABC-TV Sports, becoming the nation’s first black baseball announcer. In October of 1972, Robinson’s life ended in his Connecticut home when he suffered a heart attack due to complications from heart disease and diabetes.

 

It turns out that even death couldn’t stop Robinson from accomplishing one final first. In August 1982, he became the first baseball player, of any race, to receive a US postage stamp.

 

 

Baseball History

Robinson aside, 1947 was not an unremarkable year for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At season’s end they were 94-60 and clinched the NL pennant before losing to the Yankees in the World Series. The previous season they had finished the year two games out of first with a record of 96-60. Bear in mind however that, for the 1947 season they had lost their manager due to “unbecoming conduct” - an effort by the Commissioner to get Rickey to fold on starting Robinson. They had also lost a starter. Pitcher Kirby Higbe, who had 17 wins with an ERA of 3.03 for the club in ’46, refused to play on an integrated team and was traded. Also Robinson, who played first for the club that year, was playing his first season in the position – ever. Though he would spend his professional career as a utility infielder, before 1947 he’d never stepped foot on the base as a fielder, not even in little league.

 

In 1946 there were 400 MLB players and they were all white. By 1947, that number was down by two. On opening day 2015, 8.3% of the MLB was comprised of men of color and Latinos accounted for 29.3% of all players.  

 

If you’ve watched an MLB game in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve noticed the retired jersey number 42 on the fence. Jackie Robinson’s courage in the face of adversity is something that cannot go unrecognized.

 

In the film there is a scene where Pee Wee Reese says to Robinson, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42. That way they won’t tell us apart.” Robinson’s No. 42 was officially retired by the Dodgers on June 4, 1972. Not too unusual for any baseball team but, there is only one number retired throughout all of American baseball. Since 1997, no player, in any league, has been able to claim No. 42 as their own. On one very special day each year however, every player has the honor of embodying the man that, through his strength and patience, changed the game and, in doing so, the hearts of a nation.

 

 

On April 15th each season, all players, coaches, managers and umpires get to wear the coveted number 42. It is a tradition started in 2004 to commemorate “Jackie Robinson Day” celebrated on the date of opening day his rookie season. It has remained an annual tradition.

 

We asked the Bonn Capitals head coach, BJ Roper-Hubbert to comment on the tradition, “I didn't get to wear No. 42. It would have been an honor as he is a major reason I, and every other black player, are allowed to play baseball professionally. Without a doubt, he is one of the most influential people, if not the most, to ever play the game.”  

When we contacted BJ he replied, “I was wearing his socks when I got your message!”

 

Robinson's baseball career was, not surprisingly, riddled with hit-by-pitches. In his rookie season he took nine for the team. In 1952, 14. Lifetime 72. Compare that to his teammates – Reese 26 times lifetime. Duke Snider 21 lifetime. All three are Hall of Famers. All were on the same team at the same time.

 

In the movie Robinson is shown taking one to the head, sans helmet. It turns out this is one of those historical inaccuracies done to make a bigger point. Though helmets were new, and still optional at the time, the Dodgers had a mandate that players wear them at bat. That came down from the previous GM, Larry MacPhail, after both Reese and Medwick were beaned.

 

Jackie also loved to run. He stole home base 19 times his rookie year. Two years later, at the age of 30, he took a career-high 29. Both seasons he led the National League. In his career he took 197 total bases. The six-time All Star also lead the NL in batting with a .342 average in 1949, earning him the NL batting title. Robinson was voted Rookie of the Year in '47 and followed it up with an MVP award in '49. In his career with the Dodgers they accumulated six pennants. Robinson had a .311 lifetime batting average.

 

Review

This movie is a very important lesson in American race relations. They shy away from nothing and it is so important. There was not an ancillary character or weak performer in the film. The director deserves special praise for being able to pull out what was necessary from every performer. It is clear in their work that they understood, and respected, the gravity of the opportunity.

 

The writing is superb. The threading of historical publications, along with the set design and costumes combine to give the appropriate feel to the piece. The casting makes you feel like you are truly experiencing the events in real time because the actors bare strong resemblance to the people. 

 

During the film there is a pinnacle moment between Reese and Robinson. Though historians argue the timing is inaccurate, the portrayal of their friendship seems to have been captured. Another critic has been that the film ignored the centrality of the broader civil rights struggle. Critics say Rickey's plan came after more than a decade of effort by black and left-wing journalists and activists to desegregate the national pastime. While likely true, the reality is that white men have been rewriting history to their advantage throughout the civil rights movement and this film is no exception. It is, however, sanctioned by the man’s widow so we have to assume that, in terms of an insider’s perspective, it is more accurate than most.

 

My biggest beef with the film is the very end. It is a solid minute of disjointed Hollywood hoopla in comparison but given the nature of the rest of the film, a reprieve, if not totally welcome. While I would recommend this film to anyone I would suggest adult approval before viewing with anyone under 15-years of age.

 

According to the Boseman, on this both he and Mrs. Robinson can agree, “In some ways I think the film gave you the right amount of it so that you could enjoy the other parts. Rachel Robinson said ‘You not only helped me to remember the darker moments of that time but the joy that we found with each other.’ And sometimes that’s the irony of life, that during the most difficult moments you look back on it and you realize how much you enjoyed it. How much you can celebrate it. I think you needed to have both things in the movie.”

 

On all accounts, we concur. This film simply doesn’t work without the good times as much as the bad.

 

It may be hard to juxtapose the America of this movie with that of last week’s elections but, rest assured, in all ways, they are one in the same. Today, just as then, you have out and out racism but, at the core of both the land, and certainly the game, you have love. And, if time has taught historians and scientists nothing, it is that love is capable of creating miraculous growth in human quality.

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