“Rounding third, Jackie Robinson heads for home, sweet, home” – Red Barber, the Dodgers radio announcer calling a home run hit by Jackie Robinson on September 17th, 1947.
While this home run didn’t have the historical impact of the famous Bobby Thomson HR, called ‘the shot heard around the world’, that would be hit 4 years later, or the cinematic thunder of the HR hit by Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film called The Natural – the Robinson HR was no less majestic. And if not quite the pennant clincher for the Dodgers, it was the climatic scene of the new bio-film 42.
We should point out that the film 42 is not to be taken to task for the few liberties taken that aren’t quite historically accurate. Because Robinson, had so many accomplishments as a player, but none were greater than the fact of being the first Negro to play in baseball’s Major Leagues. Thereby changing the game forever. This far overrides anything else. The film does not depict his whole life and we learning nothing of his successful collegiate athletic career or even anything more than he served as an Army officer in WWII. You can only do so much in a two hour film.
The film begins with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) telling his stunned office staff that he was going to go against the grain, against the code, and against the unwritten rules and have the Dodgers be the first MLB club to have a black player. While Rickey was certainly brave and a bit idealistic, he was also a business man. He figured a black player would be a draw and as George Steinbrenner of the Yankees would mention some 35 years later – Rickey knew that having a black player on the team would ‘put fannies in the seats‘, and money into the Dodger’s bank account.
What he didn’t know at the time was just who that player would be.
Robinson, at that time, was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro baseball league. So Rickey had Robinson come in for an interview prior to the 1946 season. He liked what he saw and he signed Robinson a contract with the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in Montreal. Robinson played that whole season in Montreal and in the spring of 1947 he competed for a spot on the Brooklyn Dodgers and won a job.
And as they say, the rest is history. And that’s the key element to the film. We’ve seen the man enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. We’ve read the accounts of his playing career. But what I am sure of, is that most of us aren’t old enough to know what it must have been like for Robinson.
When Rickey tried to race-bait Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers’ office in downtown Brooklyn during that interview, his goal was to see what the man was made of.
Jackie Robinson: You think I’m a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts *not* to fight back.
Jackie Robinson: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.
But that would not prepare Robinson, or we viewers for what would follow. Sure, the vitriol was condensed down to some opposing players, and an opposing manager named Ben Chapman, a Florida cop, an airline employee, a Philadelphia hotel manager, and a few ‘fans’ – even in Brooklyn, and even some of Robinson’s teammates who more than hinted that they didn’t want to play with him. And it was plenty ugly. But there’s no way to have soft-pedaled the hate. Because that was what it was like.
Again, as they say – the rest is history. Now if you are going to say that knowing the history will blunt the impact of what you see on-screen, you’d have a point, but only a small point.
The film is not a documentary about race relations in the USA, or even about Robinson’s full impact, first on the game of baseball, and then on the larger issue – one of societal issues in general and racial issue specifcially. Rather it is a look at what Robinson had to do , and what he went through in his first two years in the Dodgers organization.
Much of it is not pretty to hear or even think about. But it happened. When you see the film, take note of how wonderfully the wizards of Hollywood recreated The Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field and other baseball stadiums of the mid and late 1940’s. See the absolute realism of the ball playing on the field.
Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, and he was marvelous as Jackie the baseball player. I can’t tell you if Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey was accurate, nor can I tell you if Ford’s suit was properly padded to make him the same size as Branch Rickey , or if his voice had the right amount of growl to it.
Other actors like Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, and John C. McGinley as Dodger radio-announcer Red Barber, either came quite close to looking like the real people they were portraying, or in the case of McGinley as Barber – sounding enough alike to make you forget that this was an actor.
The film rewards both baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. And when you exit the theater it is quite likely that you won’t know much more about Jackie Robinson the man, than you did before you saw the film. But there is one thing you can be sure of, and that would be the impact made by Robinson and Rickey.
Four point two five is the rating, and I’ll call it a must-see.