Friday, October 24, 2014

Recalling Jackie Robinson "42" Years After His Passing

Not only do Numbers have a well-deserved reputation for truthfulness ... they also have a way of providing perspective.

On the 42nd anniversary of the passing of Sport's most impactful No. 42,
as legendary sportswriter Roger Kahn is publishing an insider's account of this history,
let's revisit "42," Brian Helgeland's 2013 film version of Jackie Robinson's MLB infancy.

The Narrative

“Please take a shower with me.”

So says Brooklyn Dodger right-hander Ralph Branca to his rookie teammate Jackie Robinson in one of the lighter moments in the film “42.” Branca’s awkward attempts to make his effort at camaraderie more palatable get them both to laughing. (And we all thought poor Ralph’s most embarrassing moment came four years later when he surrendered the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to Bobby Thomson.)

This sort of gentle humor arises from time to time in the movie, as when Robinson expresses concern that he’s being cut in spring training from the Dodgers’ Montreal affiliate. In actuality, Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith was rescuing him from a lynch mob.

Sadly, such commonplace activities as the usage of locker-room showers and public restrooms were still filtered through the lens of segregation in the 1940’s. Indeed, one of the harder cases on those Dodgers, outfielder Dixie Walker, is shown immediately leaving the shower area upon Jackie’s entry.

The tale of Jackie Robinson has been well documented in American folklore, from his exploits at UCLA, through his historic Hall of Fame major league career, to his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 53—and even beyond, thanks to the tireless efforts of his widow Rachel.

This “based on fact” account of Robinson’s entry into “white” baseball imposes upon the details a humanity, in all its glory and all its ugliness. It also provides us a vivid and accurate representation of an era, from fashion to on-field equipment to a marvelous musical score (Cole, Holiday, Ellington, Basie…even some Hank Williams).

The film’s most compelling scene occurs in the corridor between the dugout and clubhouse during an early-season game against Philadelphia at Ebbet’s Field. Robinson had just been the target of some vicious, racially-toned bench-jockeying from Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Jackie temporarily cracked, smashing his bat on the wall before dropping to his knees in sobs. Dodger honcho Branch Rickey arrived to provide the right words to keep Robinson “living the sermon” and playing first base. (“Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his low ground.”) In the tradition of a parable, Robinson singled to right in the eight, moved to third on a steal and throwing error, then scored the game’s only run on a single.

The schmaltziest scene involved Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Reese, a native of nearby Louisville, was reluctant to play a series in Cincinnati after receiving an uncomplimentary letter. From a filing cabinet in his office, Rickey pulled three over-stuffed manila folders—Robinson’s mail. In a haunting monotone, Pee Wee read aloud three letters, each more hate-filled and threatening than the last.

As Robinson and his mates took the field for the opening game, the stands erupted with invective—even a pre-teen relative of Reese, who sadly was merely aping his dad. Reese fielded a practice grounder from Robinson and ran the ball across the infield. Standing with his arm over Jackie’s shoulder, Pee Wee said, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42 so they can’t tell us apart.”

The question “Why” permeates this story. At his initial spring training with the Montreal Royals, a reporter asked, “Is this about politics?” Robinson replied, “It’s about getting paid.”

A more crucial “why” required three askings—Jackie inquiring as to Rickey’s motivation in this endeavor. The response was both social and personal. As Rickey had told him in that narrow ballpark corridor, “You’re medicine, Jack!”

Is “42” a historically accurate accounting of Jackie Robinson’s entry to the major leagues? Not exactly.

But more importantly (as ESPN’s Howard Bryant observed), it is a movie to watch with a young person whom you love.

The History

Wikipedia includes in its entry for “42” a list of the film’s historical inaccuracies. Several minor game and player details are identified; radio voice Red Barber would not have been broadcasting from road venues; and Jackie’s to-his-knees “breakdown” (and Rickey’s subsequent pep talk) in reaction to the bitter racial tauntings of Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman was completely fabricated.

Not fabricated—confirmed in Steve Jacobson’s 2007 Carrying Jackie’s Torch—is the gas-station incident from Robinson’s lone season (1945) with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The precocious rookie with the big mouth on the ball field bartered bathroom usage in exchange for a rather profitable business transaction.

In effect (and certainly with a good bit more forethought and social intent) Branch Rickey was exercising the same principle—disregarding precedent and tradition in exchange for a championship team. He tells Jackie as much in his office. Leo Durocher tells the rest of the team in his “He’s Only the First” night-night story in response to a “We Won’t Play With One of ‘Them’” letter of discontent.

Always a forward-thinking man, Branch Rickey was the architect of baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals back in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. Little wonder, then, that his efforts at integration were aggressive, but strategic. There had been prior attempts, mostly surreptitious. Acclaimed New York Giants manager John McGraw had tried some forty years earlier to pass off a Negro pitcher as Native American, even using the common nickname “Chief.” Alas, the player’s true identity was revealed, and he never pitched for the Giants.

Not to be foiled, Rickey told his inner circle in 1945 they needed the right man for the job. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, though validated by history, was a less than obvious candidate—and a “hard case” as noted by the ever-present Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier. Stubbornly strong-willed enough to have been court-martialed during his military stint, yet “in-the-moment” enough to fear being cut from the squad even as Smith rescues him from a potential lynching. The filmmakers suggest that a shared Methodist background factored into Rickey’s choice.

With the help of his classical education from Ohio Wesleyan, Rickey astutely foresaw how Jackie’s “guts enough not to fight back” in the face of vile invective would generate sympathy and then acceptance, first in his own locker room, finally in baseball overall.

As with Branca’s verbal clumsiness in the “shower” scene, the narrative counters the stark emotion of such a pivotal season in our national pastime in subtle ways: the Robinsons’ white baby-sitter; the presence of a black police officer on the ball field during opening-day ceremonies in 1946 Jersey City; the blue-collar Florida dude’s well-wishes and respectful “Ma’am” to Rachel; even the pregnant pause by the white kid in the Cincinnati stands prior to parroting his pop.

The family’s reaction to the iconic image of Reese and Robinson on the field that day is left to the viewer’s interpretation.

The film wraps up a pennant-winning season (a 7-game World Series loss to the Yanks is omitted) and offers some biographical and historical tidbits of the key figures.

Overall, “42” successfully combines the celebration of a historic occasion with a reminder of our need for such an occasion.