Sunday, 7 July 2013

Take Me Out to a Movie!

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Anyone interested in seeing a good baseball movie?

Go catch “42,” the story about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in major league baseball. In my opinion, I think it’s just as good as my other favorite baseball movie to date and that is *61… Billy Crystal’s drama about the Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle mammoth attempt at breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961.

It’s hard to believe that such prejudice existed only a couple generations ago when Brooklyn Dodger GM Branch Rickey offered a contract to African-American ballplayer Jack Roosevelt Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ AAA farm team in Montreal.  But racism was there in force. Most of the abuse, if not nearly all, came from the white southerners. That is emphasized in the movie without going overboard. Overall, I thought the acting was excellent. The two main characters are Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson. For me, Harrison Ford stood out. A credit to his movie character, Ford looked and acted the way the larger-than-life Brooklyn GM probably was. 

The movie covers the first two years of Robinson’s career in the Dodgers organization, first with the Montreal Royals, then the Brooklyn Dodgers. It opens in 1945 with Rickey sending scout Clyde Sukeforth to fetch Robinson to Brooklyn for a talk. The movie shows Sukeforth catching up with  Robinson outside his Kansas City Monarchs’ bus while on a road trip.

Too bad that’s not the way it happened.  On the road, that is.

In actual fact, Robinson was at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, about an hour before the Monarchs were to play a scheduled Negro American League game when he was approached by Sukeforth.  Sukeforth’s orders were to pay particular attention to Robinson’s arm because Rickey wondered if Robinson could cut it in the majors at the shortstop position he had been playing for the Monarchs. It just so happened that Robinson wasn’t in the lineup that day due to a sore arm. Sukeforth said that Branch Rickey wanted to see the player in Brooklyn. Robinson wanted to know what for.  Sukeforth wouldn’t say. The two met later that evening in Sukeforth’s hotel room. After a preliminary chat, Sukeforth was very impressed with Robinson, he then made arrangements for the two of them to take a train to Brooklyn.

The movie portrays the legendary talk between Robinson and Rickey in about 3 minutes from beginning to end when it actually took more like 3 hours. During the real meeting, Rickey told Robinson that the Brooklyn Dodgers wanted him to be the first black man in the majors. He then drilled Robinson on every kind of circumstance that could arise. Ballplayers yelling racial insults in his face.  Base runners deliberately sliding into him. Name-calling from the stands and opposition dugouts. Dodger teammates refusing to play with him. Despite everything, Robinson had to keep his cool and not retaliate with anything other than hitting, fielding, and base-running. Only what you see in a newspaper box score.

One scene has Robinson being hit on the noggin by a pitch and knocked out. By the way, there were no batting helmets in 1947. They didn’t appear until the 1950s. Robinson never took one off the head in his career. Some pitches were close, however, enough to scare any red-blooded batter.  He did get hit in other places, though. Another scene has Robinson getting so mad with the name-calling from Phillies manager Ben Chapman that he smashes a bat to bits under the stands. There’s no evidence of that happening either. All in all, I thought it was a very good movie. The computer imagery that they can do in movies now leaves you breathless. 42 has scenes taking place in three legendary ballparks that no longer exist…Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, New York’s Polo Grounds, and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Every detail of all three parks was enhanced on the screen so vividly that I thought for a moment that I was really there, sitting in the stands, eating a hot dog and guzzling a drink.

In retrospect, Robinson didn’t end up playing shortstop for the Dodgers. He didn’t have the arm strength, something Branch Rickey had suspected all along. He played second base in Montreal. In Brooklyn, he started out at first base (a brand new position for him) because second base was occupied by slick-fielding Eddie Stanky, who is characterized in the movie as the one who confronts Phillies manager Ben Chapman before the bat-smashing scene.  In spring training, the next year, Robinson was shifted to second base (where he excelled for 5 seasons) after the Dodgers traded Stanky to the Boston Braves. In his last 4 seasons, Robinson played the outfield and third-base.  

I urge every baseball fan who loves the game and its history to watch 42. Even if you don’t like baseball, or even sports for that matter, go see it anyway. It’s a lesson on life. It’s worth it to see what Jackie Robinson had to endure to make the majors. As one of his 1945 Kansas City Monarch teammates said many years later, “He took the abuse for his race. And it killed him.”  

His teammate may have had something there. Due to complications from heart disease and diabetes, Robinson was nearly blind by early middle age. He died of a heart attack on October 24, 1972. He was only 53.

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