The movie “42” is a magnificent movie on its own; That it tells a tale about baseball makes it that much grander. It is a tale of strong men who were willing to challenge an established social code and change the world. The two major collaborators in this tale are Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodger general manager and owner, and Jackie Robinson, an extraordinary athlete as a four sport star at UCLA, Army Officer in WWII, and a gifted, talented baseball player. The story of how Robinson got to the big leagues is a great tale in itself, but the background is even more amazing.
In an early scene, Rickey is meeting with his staff and says he is going to bring a black man into major league baseball. He comments, that “there are a lot of black baseball fans in Brooklyn,” so Rickey’s motivation was economic. This fact has been born out by contemporary accounts and interviews. With this economic incentive, Rickey goes on a search for the right sort of man. Robinson is that man in every way.
How did Rickey know there were a lot of black baseball fans in New York? He was reflecting on the Negro League teams, the Newark Eagles, the New York Cubans and the New York Black Yankees who played in New York in 1946. The Eagles had Larry Doby (HOF 1998), Monte Irvin (HOF 1973) and Ray Dandridge on its pennant winning team. These three teams had enthusiastic fans and Rickey said he wanted them. The movie is true to this history and this adds to its historical accuracy. (The Eagles were operated by Effa Manley the first and still leading female team operator, more on her later.)
Robinson was playing for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs when Rickey approached him. He then went to Spring Training trying to make the Montreal Royals, a Dodger affiliate, Baseball culture surrounding the play of the game is depicted with perfection, The tensions among players, the struggle to play well enough, is overlain by the tension of Robinson’s ethnicity. He was the first black player, or was he?
There was no secret that the major leagues would be integrated at some point. There is significant evidence that black players had played before Robinson. My candidate for the first black was Bobby Estalella, thought to be part black, who played for the Washington Senators, but Estalella was a Cuban and Cubans got a pass. Recall Charlie Pryor who played Charles Snow, “Carlos Nevada,” in the movie “Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars.” Snow studied Spanish so he could pass for a Cuban to make the Majors. These efforts at using Cubans was simply a prelude to hiring African American players. It seems that when Robinson played in Brooklyn it was only a matter of time before other African American players would arrive. A scene in the press box with a writer predicting that blacks would supplant whites in the Major Leagues because “they had a longer heel bone,” was one of the humorous moments but illustrated the myth that blacks had some physical advantage over whites. When Robinson hit it out of the park, the other writers ask “did he hit that with his heel bone?”
Robinson as played by Chadwick Boseman who learned to hit and play like Robinson. It is his deft imitation of Robinson’s batting stance that I liked the most, followed by the base running. The movie shows Robinson as a hitter of note and an aggressive base runner. The movie shows the pitcher pitching out of the stretch rather than a windup every time Robinson gets to third base and has Robinson steal home in such a situation. This is just a director’s error but is one that is caught by every baseball fan in the audience, as is the umpire’s use of the outside, or American league, chest protector in National League games.
This movie uses special effects better than any baseball film ever. The speed of the pitched ball is shown at its lethal best.(See: ‘Baseball’s Timeless Appeal’ on this blog) I have never seen this before in a movie and it is done perfectly.
It is the graphic description of the grand old parks that I enjoyed most, as all baseball games were shown in the appropriate parks like Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, Wrigley Field, Sportsman’s Park, and the Polo Grounds, where you can see that deep center field where Mays made that wonderful catch in 1954.
The relationship between Jackie and wife, Rachel, is magical. and played wonderfully by Nicole Baharie. As the anchor-to-windward for Robinson, she is perfect, even to the point of giving batting instructions, “you’re lunging, Jack.”
Harrison Ford spent a lot of time studying Branch Rickey, a lawyer turned baseball executive. that was the masterful performance. Ford catches the stance, style, bluster, and bravado perfectly. I spent time with Rickey when I was a kid and I could smell the cigar again.
I discussed Rickey’s motivation above. He wanted to make money. Rickey was a lawyer and Robinson was under contract to the Monarchs when Rickey signed him to a Montreal contract. Usually when this happens, the former team would have been compensated for the loss, absent this, it must sue to recover. Rickey never compensated Negro League teams for players he took and there is no evidence he was ever sued. On the other hand, Bill Veeck, who had been watching Larry Doby for years, paid Effa Manley of the Eagles (see above) $11,000 as compensation for the lost player. Rickey said the Negro League owner were a bunch of petty crooks and hustlers, one team being financed by a gambler; Veeck saw them as baseball colleagues (Veeck told me he should have paid $100,000 for Doby.)
Doby followed Robinson by six weeks into the American League, so they share trail-blazer credit, joined in July by Hank Thompson with the St. Louis Browns. It was the American League that had the most black players in 1947. That there were three black players in the Majors in 1947 is not well known. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate, doing so in 1959.
This movie is important for a number of reasons. First, it tells a story of great men confronting a great evil and overcoming that barrier and changing a nation. Second, for younger viewers it will be a shocking view of segregated America. I don’t know how that will be dealt with, but for me, it was a sad memory of a disturbing time. This is a movie that transcends the theme of baseball to teach America an important moment, as important as any in our social history, and teaches a lesson for all to absorb and wonder how they would have acted if in the same position at that time.