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 following a cold act of cowardice; a good and kind friend was robbed in Atlanta and lost some irreplaceable personal items; a dependable and beloved longtime Athens soup kitchen was destroyed by fire. I won’t bother adding the details of my income tax situation.

Suffice to say, a wretched Monday storm for the books.

But it was also Jackie Robinson Day, and that’s the day I woke up to, the day I anticipated, the day when everyone wearing a Major League Baseball uniform dons Robinson’s No. 42 (a number that is 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 big show since the major leagues adopted Jim Crow laws in the 19th century. 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, I was in need of some spiritual nutrition. There were lingering transcendental fumes, because the wife took me to a yoga class with her early in the evening, and it helped, but I needed the kind of octane boost that baseball always has given me – this silly game, my safe haven, my 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, a great baseball fan, wonderful writer and insightful movie reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading Erik’s review because I always learn something while being entertained, and this is a movie we both have been waiting for. Anyway, here’s my untrained, two-bits’ worth:

I love the movie. It’s beautiful to watch, and it’s a great story about humans and baseball.

Sure, it falls into some of the typical baseball movie traps, and there were times when I thought to myself,  “Ah yes, The Blacktural.” It has some of the worshipful elements you’ve seen in movies about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

In scene after scene, we are told exactly how we are supposed to feel: Jackie was the Jesus of baseball, and Branch Rickey (played with evangelical zeal by Harrison Ford) is John the Baptist, given to Biblical-tinged spiels. Then again, Rickey was a proud Methodist who didn’t go to ballgames on Sunday. “You’re medicine,” he tells Robinson in the movie. “We need you.” It’s the kind of thing you say to a savior.

Of course, we easily sympathize with Robinson, played expertly by Chad Boseman. Knowing the kind of visceral opposition the Dodgers and his rookie protégé will face, Rickey tells Robinson, “I want a player with the guts not to fight back.” So, we see pitchers throwing at Robinson repeatedly and we see baserunners spiking him and teammates who would rather be traded than play ball alongside a black man.

Robinson nearly crumbles under a withering barrage of insults from the opposition. His wife and infant son are threatened. Imagine turning the other cheek, holding all of that rage inside, keeping your hands at your hips instead of striking back when you have every right and instinct to do so. Imagine the internal stress of that, and the toll it can take on a man’s health. Robinson was only 53 when he died. In the movie, Boseman personifies fury with one foot nailed to the floor.

One of my complaints about the movie is, it never lets on that Rickey made Robinson promise to keep his temper in check for three seasons (one in the minors, and two in the majors, as it turned out). So, we never get to see the gloves come off in 1949 (Robinson’s third season in the majors). We never see Jackie fully armed and loaded because we’re not supposed to, because the movie only covers a couple of years, 1945-1947.

But we do get a glimpse of some of the ridiculous and nasty challenges thrown his way. It is almost excruciating to watch Ben Chapman, the spewing racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, not because of actor Alan Tudyk’s performance (which is effectively smarmy), but because this kind of shit really happened. There is satisfaction when Robinson’s teammates finally stand up for him (I probably shouted “Yes!” a little too loud when the Eddie Stanky character confronts Chapman).

The baseball scenes are great (in spite of inaccuracies — for example, Fritz Ostermueller, the Pirates’ pitcher who beans Robinson, was a lefty, not a righty, as portrayed in the movie). The story is stirring and the acting is solid. I’m a sucker for baseball movies, even the bad ones. I actually sat through The Slugger’s Wife when it was in theaters, the whole damn stinking mess. It hurt like hell, but I sat through it, just as I’ve sat through plenty of 8-1 Braves’ losses through the years.

I’ll 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 teenagers, 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 they also said they liked the emotional wallop).

But, what really interested me was the departing crowd from the 7:10 showing. This was 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. These were all-white private schools founded in early 70s when county school boards started to actually follow federal integration laws.

Times change, slowly. There are students of color in Bulloch Academy now. Here was a school founded on principles of segregation (42 years earlier, as a matter of fact) sending students to see a movie about a black man who broke the baseball color barrier and was a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement.

There was another kind of historical symmetry to Bulloch Academy’s presence. These kids are from Statesboro where 50 years earlier, a 12-year-old African-American (read about it here) became the youngest player to appear in a professional baseball game, and the first black person to play in that particular Class D minor league.

That movie hasn’t been made yet.

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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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