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Waiting for ‘42’

Posted on Apr 12, 2013
Warner Bros.

By Allen Barra

Jackie Robinson’s story has been oddly neglected by Hollywood. There was an excellent low budget film in 1950, “The Jackie Robinson Story,” starring Robinson himself with Ruby Dee. Amazingly, it is still little seen outside of the black audience it was originally intended for. Blair Underwood played him in “Soul of the Game,” a fine 1996 TV movie about Robinson’s year in the Negro Leagues, with Delroy Lindo as pitcher Satchel Paige and Edward Herrmann as Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey. But 65 years after Robinson’s rookie season, his legacy remains largely literary. There are so many books on the subject—most notably “Baseball’s Great Experiment” by Jules Tygiel, Arnold Rampersad’s “Jackie Robinson” and, perhaps the most celebrated of all baseball books, Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer”—they could fill a small library.

Considering that Hollywood has covered virtually every area of baseball, from the Little Leagues to potential for baseball-pitching chimps, it seems odd that it took the major studios so long to tell baseball’s most important story. Luckily, for a film about two men who came together to change not merely a sport but a country, director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s “42” does not take itself too seriously.

The actual baseball in “42” isn’t bad, much of it filmed at my hometown Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., the oldest still-standing ballpark in the country, with period skylines and bleacher shots inserted. Most of the action in baseball movies is home runs and strikeouts—Europeans and others who don’t know the game probably wonder why all those men except for the pitcher and the batter are standing around doing nothing. Although “42” is more than respectful to baseball history, Helgeland has the patience to let the action develop, to give the viewer a chance to see why Robinson was such a great player and how he could unnerve opposing teams. During one sequence, he rattles a pitcher and draws a four-pitch walk, surely the first time in the history of movies a director allowed a batter as many as four pitches. Chadwick Boseman, an actor of superb physical grace, has clearly watched films of Robinson and faithfully emulates his jitterbug lead off first base, fingers fluttering and feet dancing in place. (You can see a bit of it in the video of his famous stealing home in the 1956 World Series, even though Robinson was 37 and near the end of his career. Watch Yogi Berra go ballistic for the first and only time in his career.)

Oddly enough, the incident in the film that has been met with the most skepticism over the years is something that probably happened exactly the way it is depicted in “42.” In a game in Cincinnati in 1947, in response to vicious heckling from the crowd, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a native Kentuckian, walked over to Robinson, who was playing first base, and put his arm around him. Or that’s how the story goes. That this ever happened was stoutly disputed by a writer named Stuart Miller in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2007 titled “Breaking the Truth Barrier.”

“It’s a wonderful folk tale,” Miller wrote, “but likely only half-true. Robinson didn’t mention the incident in an autobiography published after his rookie year. And in a 1952 magazine interview and in his 1960 book, ‘Wait Till Next Year,’ he placed it in 1948, in Boston. ... (In addition, the pitcher Carl Erksine has said he witnessed the moment, and he didn’t join Brooklyn until 1948.)” Well, Robinson may not have brought it up in an interview because he wasn’t asked about it or in his book because it was 13 years later, and Erksine may well have remembered it happening in 1948 because Reese either did it again or another Dodger player chose to put his arm around Robinson. But it happened.

In his 2007 book, “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” Jonathan Eig writes that there was no account of Reese putting his arm around Jackie in any 1947 newspaper and points out, “No photos of the incident have ever been identified.” But as Kahn told me, it wasn’t likely that any paper would have run a picture or a mention because “American papers have always been notoriously slack about reporting matters of racial significance.” Kahn further noted that white-run newspapers even downplayed the importance of Robinson’s major league debut.

But at least one journalist who was there remembered it. Several years ago, Lester Rodney—“Press Box Red,” a reporter for the Communist paper the Daily Worker—recalled the gesture taking place in 1947. “I could kick myself,” he told me in an interview for The Village Voice, “for not having written about it at the time.” And he was positive that it happened in Cincinnati because “it was the only time all season that the Daily Worker sprang for expenses to send me on a road trip.”

There is a statue commemorating the moment outside MCU Park on Coney Island, the home of Brooklyn’s only professional baseball team, the Cyclones.

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