I went to see the new movie about Jackie Robinson with reluctance and trepidation. Robinson was the hero of my youth. I remember his first season in Brooklyn vividly. He was an athletic hero who really was a hero. I was worried that Hollywood would mess up his story. The film focuses on Robinson’s signing by Branch Rickey, his year in Montreal, and then his rookie season in Brooklyn – 1947. While the picture does a pretty good job of telling a part of Robinson’s story, the real Jackie Robinson was a much more interesting guy than the one depicted in 42.
It’s been 66 years since Robinson made his major league debut; so it’s not surprising that much of the attention he now gets is because of his immense social importance in helping to rectify America’s violation of its founding principle – All men are created equal. But I remember Robinson in a different context. I was just a little kid living in Flatbush when he came up. I knew that there was hostility towards him motivated by racial prejudice; but my interest in him was mainly as a player for a team that I was fiercely devoted to. And it didn’t take too long to realize that he was an extraordinary player. One can easily argue that he was the best all around athlete in American history; he certainly would be on any such short list.
He was UCLA’s first four letter man: Baseball, football, basketball, and track. He was the best long jumper in the world. Had there been an Olympics in 1940 he likely would have won gold in that event. Baseball was said to be his weakest game and he had the most complete game in the majors of his time. His biggest problem was that he was a 28 year old rookie. His talent was so great that he should have started in the majors when he was about 20.
Many veterans of the Negro Leagues said at the time (and for decades thereafter) of Robinson’s arrival in the big leagues that there were many other black players who were better than Jackie. While it’s certain many of the black players who were denied the opportunity that Robinson was given were great athletes, there weren’t many players of any origin or of any time who were as good as Robinson in his all too brief prime. Robinson could hit, field, run the bases, intimidate pitchers, and lead his team better than any other player of his day. On a team full of great players, he was the best.
42 captures the struggle that Robinson went through in his rookie year. Chadwick Boseman looks like a baseball player which is all that really counts. To the few still living who remember the real thing, he doesn’t doesn’t look very much like Jackie; though he does hold his bat the way Robinson did. Robinson was bigger and more powerfully built than Boseman. His base running style was different from that adopted by Boseman. Indeed, it was different from any other player I’ve seen. Watching Robinson on third base was a life altering experience. He threatened to steal home on every pitch. This drove opposing pitchers crazy. There’s no telling how many walks, balks, wild pitches, and passed balls this tactic caused. He actually accomplished the feat 20 times (counting his steal of home in the 1955 world series). In comparison, Ty Cobb did it 54 times, but in 24 seasons. Robinson had only 10 seasons – the first of them at age 28. Cobb made his big league debut at 18.
Harrison Ford gives a cigar chewing over the top impersonation of Branch Rickey that conveys a sense of the genuine baseball president who helped change the game. Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman brilliantly portrays the ugliness that Robinson had to deal with. He succeeds in making you really hate him. That the most fiery competitor who ever played the game could maintain his composure in his first season is a miracle of self control. Nicole Beharie is both beautiful and convincing as Rachel Robinson – the pillar of Jackie’s life.
The movie is worth seeing though it can’t realize the brilliance of the man who is its protagonist. There are a few goofs. National League umpires wore their chest protectors inside their jackets. The large shield protectors shown in the film were only used by American League umpires. The Dodgers and the Cardinals finished the 1946 season in a tie. The Cardinals won Baseball’s first playoff two games to zero. As far as I can recall no one ever booed Robinson in Brooklyn. He was the fans’ favorite right from the start. In fact, he probably had a lot more more people rooting for him than against. He made the cover of Time Magazine. The Rookie of the Year Award was virtually created for him. That he deserved it is obvious. Remarkably, Ebbets Field in the movie looks just like it did when it was still alive and I was buying 60 cent bleacher tickets. The same is so of the eccentric right field fence and score board. Incidently, I met Robinson many times, though it was just to shake his hand and get an autograph. He was uniformly good natured with his fans.
Jackie Robinson’s greatness as a player is always likely to be eclipsed by his importance to American life. But it’s instructive to remember what a great athlete he was and how many great athletes who followed him just had to contend with their abilities because of what he accomplished. My own recollection is simply that he was the best baseball played I ever rooted for.