Dec 12, 2013
Waiting for ‘42’
Posted on Apr 12, 2013
By Allen Barra
Here are a few things that “42” won’t tell you:
In the film’s final scenes, Robinson wins the pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers with—you guessed it—a home run. I wish Helgeland had not chosen to rewrite history for dramatic effect, not just because it makes Robinson seem like a slugger whom he really wasn’t, but it’s the one blatantly historically false moment in the movie. Robinson did hit a home run near the end of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Dodgers lost. They didn’t actually clinch the pennant until four days later, on Sept. 22, when the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals in a game that wasn‘t over until 11:30 p.m. Central time. The Dodgers, famously, woke up to find out they were the National League champions.
Why does Helgeland have it otherwise? Because the Pirates are the bad guys in the movie, the team with the most racist ballplayers. (The guys on the Dodgers who won’t accept a black teammate get traded there.) The pennant-winning home run silliness is both corny and misleading: Every team in the league had players as racist as Pittsburgh did.
For reasons not clear, Helgeland chooses to distort what happened to Robinson’s famous manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher (smartly played by Christopher Meloni). While in bed with his movie actress soon-to-be wife—it must have been Laraine Day, since that’s whom Durocher married—he tells his boss, Rickey, that “Nice guys finish last.” Durocher never actually said it, but since everyone knew that’s how he felt, that’s OK. In the movie, baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler suspends Durocher for a year because of complaints about his public flaunting of morals; in fact Durocher was suspended because of his association with big time gamblers such as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel.
None of the film’s inaccuracies are offensive except perhaps the two instances where Robinson stands in the batter’s box, a look of awe on his face, watching his home run ball soar into the seats. He never did that. Watching your home run ball sail into the stands is an obnoxious modern habit that would have appalled the real Robinson. (Reggie Jackson may have been the first to do it.)
Regarding Rickey, he was, indeed, a great man, probably the most influential person in baseball history—more so than even Robinson himself. Harrison Ford, doing his most spirited work in nearly half a century in films, gives a portrait of Rickey that is multifaceted, at turns garrulous, shrewd and pious. When he finally centers on Robinson as the first black player he will bring to the major leagues, he tells his assistant with a gleam in his eye, “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist!”
Rickey was all the things Ford plays him as and much more. “The Mahatma,” as he came to be known in the 1940s, would probably have been the key figure in baseball history even if he hadn’t brought Robinson to the big leagues. For one thing, he invented baseball’s farm system, through which minor league players are prepared for the majors. For another, he was responsible for spring training as we know it, converting an old military base in Vero Beach, Fla., into “Dodgertown,” where he implemented the first “Iron Mike” pitching machines and introduced guidelines and drills for players at each position. He was the first baseball executive—the first in any sport—to establish a system of tracking and evaluating players at the minor league level and was a remarkable judge of baseball talent with one notable exception. (In 1941, while with the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey balked at paying $500 for a stumpy inarticulate young catcher named Lawrence Peter—later “Yogi”—Berra.)
Rickey was also, as team owner Bill Veeck (who would himself sign such black stars as Larry Doby and Paige) put it to me, “a sanctimonious skinflint, a Bible-thumping hypocrite, a shameless cheapskate.” While he blatantly nickel-and-dimed his players in salary negotiations, Rickey had a secret deal with the Dodgers that gave him a 10 percent commission on the sale of every player to another team. Today such a deal would be called a kickback.
Rickey’s life points to an aspect of the Robinson saga that is never really talked about. At the end of the film, Helgeland eulogizes Robinson, Rickey and Reese, among others, through still photos and captions with the dates on which they were enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, as if that was the end of the story. In fact, though it grieves the historian to point this out, the aftermath of their great triumph was marked by misfortune and loss.
Robinson never recovered from the terrible toll that being the first black player in the major leagues took on him. Old beyond his years at 37, he retired after the 1956 season. In one of the most wretched examples of disloyalty in the history of Major League Baseball, the Dodgers, owned by the same Walter O’Malley who would move them to Los Angeles two years later, was scheming to trade him to their bitter crosstown rival New York Giants.
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