42: Life, the Universe and Jackie Robinson

The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.
The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.

The addled mind needed rejuvenation last night at the end of an all-to-real surreal and senseless day. Innocent people in Boston were bleeding and dying from a devastating act of pitiless cowardice, a good and kind friend was robbed in Atlanta (and lost some irreplaceable personal items), and a dependable and beloved Athens soup kitchen was destroyed by fire.

All in all, a wretched Monday, one for the books.

But it was also Jackie Robinson Day, and that’s the day I woke up to, the day I anticipated, as I do most years. It’s the day when everyone wearing a Major League Baseball uniform dons Robinson’s No. 42, which is also the answer to life, the universe and everything, according to Douglas Adams.

In a way, April 15 is the only religious holiday in baseball, commemorating the day Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man to play in the major leagues since they adopted Jim Crow laws in the 19th century, banning generations of black ballplayers.

But thanks to Branch Rickey’s enlightened self-interest (and sense of fair play), Robinson was invited to break the color barrier, and the game became the Game, finally living up to its label as the National Pastime.

By late Monday night, my brain and heart were reeling and virtually empty of spiritual nutrition – oh, I was running on some sweet transcendental fumes, because the wife took me to yoga class with her early in the evening, and it really did help. Still, I needed the kind of octane boost and rejuvenation that baseball has always given me; a silly game, which has been my source of irrational joy and American pride and celebration, but also my safe haven, a pacifying salve.

I know exactly what James Thurber meant when he wrote, “The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.”

So, I went by myself to see the late showing of 42 at the local cinema. I’m not equipped to take this film apart and offer a cogent review. I’ll leave that kind of heavy lifting to my friend Erik Lundegaard, who is a great baseball fan, wonderful writer and terrific and insightful movie reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading what he has to say because I always learn something, and this is a movie we both have been waiting for.

Anyway, my two-bits’ worth:

Yes, the movie does fall into some of the traditional baseball film routines, and there were a few times when I thought to myself, “Ah, The Blacktural.” In some ways resembling most of the baseball biopics that came before – you get a glimpse into the subject, some hero worship, but very little depth. Think of the movies you’ve seen about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, for example.

In 42, in scene after scene, we are told exactly how we are supposed to feel: Jackie was the Jesus of baseball, especially when Harrison Ford, as Branch Rickey, gets going on a Biblical-tinged spiel. But then, Rickey was a proud Methodist. Of course, we easily sympathize with Robinson, played well by Chadwick Boseman (who even looks the part).

Knowing the kind of opposition the rookie and the Dodgers will face, Rickey elicited a promise that probably helped shorten Robinson’s life, ultimately. “I want a player with the guts not to fight back,” Rickey says.

Pitchers throw at Robinson, who leads the league in being hit by pitches. Baserunners spike him. He gets called every vile name in the book. His wife and infant son are threatened. Imagine turning the other cheek, holding all of that rage inside, forcing to keep your hands at your hips instead of striking back when you have every right and instinct to do so. The stress Robinson must have felt – he was only 53 when he died, and I do believe the stress took its toll.

We do get to see Robinson’s rage boil over — in private, when he destroys a bat in the walkway between the clubhouse and the dugout, and Boseman almost brought tears to these eyes. The scene where Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black) famously puts his arm around Robinson in a show of defiant support before a nasty Cincinnati crowd actually did bring a tear (in fact, this is my favorite scene from baseball history, has been from the first moment I saw the old black and white photo). The point is, it’s got to have long-lasting effects, burying your true self day after day after day, while grown men throw fastballs at your head.

The movie never lets on that Rickey cut Robinson loose from his passivity promise after three seasons – so we never get to see the gloves come off, we never see Jackie fully armed and loaded and playing furious ball, because we’re not supposed to (though there would have been some emotional satisfaction – instead we get that when Robinson’s teammates finally start standing up for him).

The film’s story focuses on just a couple of years, 1945-1947, and while we don’t see enough of the inner combustion that drove Robinson, we do see broad images of the ridiculous and evil challenges he had to overcome – most notably Ben Chapman, the virulently racist redneck manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, played lustily by Alan Tudyk (“Wash” from the sci-fi TV series Firefly).

The baseball scenes are fabulous, the story is moving, the acting is fine. I’m a sucker for baseball movies. I even sat through The Slugger’s Wife when it was in theaters. It hurt like hell, but I sat through it, just as I’ve sat through plenty of 8-1 Braves’ losses (especially when they really sucked, in the 70s and 80s). I’ll probably see 42 again in the theater, and hopefully very soon.

But nothing can match the first time, and here’s why. The 9:45 showing was almost empty – me, four teenaged boys, and an older African-American couple who had, between them, read every biography of Robinson and gave the film a thumbs up for sticking closely with the source material, and the emotional wallop.

What was really interesting, though, was the crowd from the 7:10 showing – a busload of kids from Bulloch Academy down in Statesboro, on a field trip to Northeast Georgia. Bulloch is one of the remaining “segregation academies” in Georgia – the all-white private schools that were founded immediately after county school boards voted to finally acquiesce to federal law.

There is no Judge Landis to keep black students from enrolling at Bulloch (or the other remaining academies), and no overt gentlemen’s agreement barring the doors. But apparently, there aren’t any black kids in the school (according to privateschoolsreport.com).

But there is something oddly satisfying about an all-white school making a point to see a movie about a black man who was a baseball and Civil Rights pioneer; a perfect kind of historical symmetry, because these white kids are from Statesboro, where 50 years ago, a 12-year-old African-American (https://fourcrickets.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/the-inning-of-a-lifetime/) became the youngest player to appear in a professional game (Class D minor leagues), and the first black person to play in an all-white league.

They haven’t made that movie yet.

4 thoughts on “42: Life, the Universe and Jackie Robinson

  1. Thanks for the review Mr Grillo!!

    I was quite scared to see this flick as one of my favorite baseball movies is The Jackie Robinson Story starring Jackie himself along with Ruby Dee, Minor Watson and others telling his story. Knowing this movie encapsulates a small time may give me a little more umph to go see it. Along with the review of a fellow that loves the history of all baseball as I.

    In another light it is so sad that Patriots Day and Jackie’s day were blotted with such hatred!! Jackie with what he did to make baseball a true game for all the youngsters to the Boston Marathon which is used by so many to raise funds for the sick and those in need and the inner health of many for just the satisfaction of self.

  2. Hey, Larry — you’ll enjoy this movie. I also enjoyed The Jackie Robinson Story (have it on blueray), but mostly as a curiosity, because Jackie himself is in it (and I love Ruby Dee). But in my opinion, that movie does a worse job of portraying the red-blooded hero Robinson really was, only because Jackie isn’t an actor. One of the greatest to play the game, sure, but no actor! This new movie has some real film chops going for it, and a tight focus, and a beautiful look to it.

  3. What a great review! Super job! It was a fantastic movie. I work at Bulloch Academy and was on that field trip to North Georgia (we went to the Blue Ridge Outdoor Educational Center at Camp Mikell in Toccoa) that you talk about and in that theater. Although our enrollment is mainly white, we do have black students who attend our school (privateschoolsreport.com also had us with an enrollment of 551 and a senior class of 19…..that was many, many, many years ago). We have two black students, along with four Chinese, one Taiwanese and one Honduran, graduating in our Class of 2014. We work hard to present cultural diversity (both locally and globally) to our kids. But your point is still very valid…today’s children NEED to know the past (and current) struggles that minorities and other people groups face and how their fight brings about change. Thanks for the mention!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Rahn. Enjoyed meeting the kids at the movie last year, and was really encouraged by it.

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