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Jackie Robinson and 42

April 19, 2013

I was born within two months of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the major leagues, and by the time I was 7 I was already a baseball nut and well aware of his historical significance.  In October 1955 I raced home from school in time to watch the last three innings of the first game of the World Series and saw him steal home against the Yankees, a moment I will never forget.  During the World Series the next year I saw him interviewed, along with some other players, on the Today show, a surprising experience to which I shall return.  Just a few weeks later I was shocked to read he had been traded to the Giants, and then, that he had retired.  I knew about his continuing involvement in politics—including his endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1960—and I read a great deal about his years in the majors.

In 1972, Roger Kahn’s book The Boys of Summer presented a strikingly honest portrait of Robinson the ballplayer in the years 1952-3.   Thanks to Jim Bouton’s taboo-breaking Ball Four two years earlier, Kahn could faithfully reproduce the profanity with which baseball players talked.  Later that year, Robinson died suddenly of diabetes and heart disease just a few days after his last public appearance at the Cincinnati-Oakland World Series. That evening, Red Barber, the Mississippian who was broadcasting Dodger games in 1947, movingly described how he had told Branch Rickey that he would have to quit if Robinson joined the Dodgers.  His Mississippi upbringing would not allow him to broadcast integrated games.  Rickey asked him to think the matter over, and he did.  Within months he was a fervent Robinson supporter.  In subsequent decades a number of books on the breaking of the color line appeared which added to the story.

The film 42, which appeared last week, was strong where Hollywood is strongest, in costumes and set design.  The portrayals of many of the characters, including Christopher Beloni’s manager Leo Durocher (a character actor’s dream), Andre Holland’s black reporter Wendell Smith, John McGinley’s Red Barber, and Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey, were more than adequate.  Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Jackie Robinson, however, was, frankly, a disaster.  It’s not that he’s a bad actor; it’s simply that the script’s Robinson had almost nothing in common with the real man he was trying to portray. Audiences will have no clue about why Branch Rickey chose him and how he managed to have the amazing impact that he did.

The 1940s and 1950s were an age of increasing assimilation in America, during which Jews, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and even a few Negro Americans (to use the contemporary term) found their way into high positions in various fields.  But for better or worse, they did so by learning the ways of the WASP mainstream themselves, from dress to speech to their general appreciation of American life.  And Jack Roosevelt Robinson exemplified this.

He grew up in Southern California.  He had been, as the movie mentions, a student-athlete at the University of California at Los Angeles, lettering in four sports.  He had been a lieutenant in the US Army during the war.  Above all, he was a highly intelligent, very articulate, well-informed man who exuded an electric energy in every minute of his life.  Chadwick Boseman portrayed a typical jock: shy, unsure of his place in the world except within the confines of the diamond, relatively slow in thought and speech,  often reluctant to look people in the eye, and afraid to say too much, especially to reporters.  Jackie Robinson was the opposite of a typical jock.  He knew exactly what he was doing and how important it was.  When a reporter asked him a question he answered it intelligently and at length—and that was undoubtedly the reason that he got most of the working press on his side so quickly.

In the late 1950s I read an interview Robinson had given after his first game in the majors, in which he had gone hitless while the Dodgers beat the Boston Braves.  He talked about the difficulty of learning his new position, first base: "With a man on first and a left-handed hitter," he said, "I still don’t know when to jump off the bag.  It could backfire in a crucial spot if I don’t learn."  The hardest thing about the day, he said, was "the way [Braves pitcher] Johnny Sain threw the fast ball and the curve with the same motion. . . .If Sain doesn’t give me as much trouble than any pitcher I face this year, it’s going to be a very long season."  He quickly added, however, that he had already hit against Bob Feller on a barnstorming tour.  "How do you feel, Jackie?" a reporter asked. "Great," he replied. "You always feel great when you win."  Had that scene gone into 42 it would have been a very different movie—and a much better one.

Robinson was above all an individual.  Even his body was almost unique: it’s very hard to think of another player, white or black, who was so tall, so fast, so agile, and also had such massive shoulders.  He had the build of an NFL tight end, but he could play any position in the infield.  And he had a remarkably distinctive voice, which shocked me when I heard it on the Today show back in 1956.  He spoke rapidly, facilely, and with one of the highest –pitched male voices I have ever heard—higher even than that of Robert Kennedy.  To confirm this I went hunting on YouTube yesterday for interviews with Robinson, and I was saddened by how little I could find.  One clip of him appearing on the Ed Sullivan show showed the real man, and the comments posted below it were correspondingly impressed.   A second clip showed him as the mystery guest on What’s My Line.  The panel established that he was a retired ballplayer but didn’t come close to identifying him.  They didn’t figure out that he was black.

Yet as Roger Kahn showed in The Boys of Summer, that, too, was only one side of Robinson.  His locker room talk was as profane as any ballplayer’s, he was indeed angry a great deal of the time, and he was one of the most fiercely, openly competitive athletes ever to take the field.  That more than anything else won over his teammates, and Boseman did little to get that across either.  (It is true that by the time Kahn met Robinson Rickey had long since "turned him loose" and allowed him to cast aside his self-restraint, but those qualities were still visible in 1947.)

And Robinson was proud not only of what he had done, but of his place within the Negro community.  When Kahn during spring training tried to commiserate with Robinson about being excluded from the team hotel, Jackie exploded. "Are you kidding?" he shrieked. "In every town I could be the guest of the most successful Negro family, the doctor, the lawyer. I’m not stuck like you. I don’t need any salesman’s hotel."  He was no saint, and after his first few years in the league he made no effort to be one.  He was nearly as hard on umpires as his first manager, Leo Durocher, and few of them had any particular affection for him.  Durocher –who spent seven years as Robinson’s bitter adversary while managing the Giants—summed him up his presence on the field best.  "You want a guy who comes to play," he said. "He came to beat you.  He came to stick the fucking bat right up your ass."

The producers of 42 could also have used a generational consultant. Jackie and Rachel Robinson were from the GI, or "greatest" generation, which built strong marriages without soul searching or verbally gushing about their emotions.  The real Jackie Robinson, looking through the glass at his newborn, might have thought about his abandonment by his own father but he wouldn’t have said anything about it out loud.  The movie gave no hint of it, but Jackie Jr. turned out to be the greatest tragedy of his life.  Caught between two high-achieving parents—his mother eventually earned an advanced degree—he became a heroin addict in his twenties.  He was arrested, rehabilitated himself and began trying to help others, and was killed in a one-car crash returning home late at night.  Robinson discussed the whole story frankly and movingly with Roger Kahn in his interview for The Boys of Summer.

Robinson was also politically active.  He did endorse Nixon in 1960 because John Kennedy failed to impress him in a brief meeting. He once said that it would mean the defeat of everything he had worked for if baseball were integrated but the political parties were segregated is certainly a chilling one today.

Even during his playing career, he attacked the neighboring Yankees for refusing to sign a Negro player.  They attacked back—and signed Elston Howard.  It is true that Robinson was not yet that man in 1947, but sadly, I find it impossible to imagine him as portrayed by Boseman becoming that man.

Robinson, indeed, started a tradition among black athletes that endured for two generations.  He was the first of a long series of highly intelligent and socially concerned players who used their success as a platform to speak out and work for social justice, including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Kareem Jabbar, and perhaps most of all, Muhammad Ali.  That tradition, like so much else from Robinson’s era, is now dead.  The real Jackie Robinson, portrayed on film, could have provided an extraordinary model for today’s youth—black, white, Hispanic and Asian.  The man we see in 42 is just another jock.  Robinson wasn’t.

 

David Kaiser, a historian, is the author of many books, including Epic Season: The 1948 American League Pennant Race.  He is currently a visiting professor at Williams College and writes the blog, historyunfolding.com.

 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

fquaye149
Brendan Ayenbadejo, an NFL player, is an outspoken champion of gay rights in the NFL (and other sports) and has invoked Jackie Robinson's name countless times in advocating that the sports world needs to accept and welcome openly gay athletes.
8:36 AM Apr 23rd
 
mikewright
I think the outspoken black athlete has disappeared. But we are still waiting for the first appearance of the outspoken white athlete, unless we are defining the term as John Rocker. I think that tradition of Robinson, Brown, Russell et. al. was as much a product of Civil Rights being on the forefront of society rather than an afterthought, as it is today. I have no doubt that men like Tiger Woods, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and Torii Hunter could be very eloquent spokesmen. But they didn't grow up in an era when race was everything.
5:16 PM Apr 22nd
 
mikeclaw
Craig -
I think that reflects a lot of things - changes in sports, changes in our culture, etc. Athletes make a lot more money now, and I'm guessing that they are instructed by agents to avoid controversy. This is true of black and white athletes alike, but this essay makes it sound like it is specifically the "outspoken black athlete" who has disappeared. Many actors and rock stars still take political stands, and they are routinely mocked for it and told to shut up.

So, yes, pro athletes now lean more toward charity work and foundations. It is a "safer" way to make a difference, but I don't see how it is any less admirable. They are working to make a difference in their own communities. That is a very positive thing, even if it is focused differently than speaking out on social issues.

That said, there are athletes who speak up. They are not as well known for it as in previous generations, but they do speak up. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, lots of athletes spoke up. I do hear athletes talk about gun violence - not advocating specific policies, but talking about trying to stop gun violence. Certainly athletes have been speaking up in the past year or two on LGBT equal rights.
11:47 AM Apr 21st
 
craigjolley
mikeclaw, That tradition was more than just intelligent and socially conscious. Here are some socially-charged issues of the day: gun control, health care reform, profiteering from U.S. invasion of third world nations. Who are some prominent athletes taking a stand, doing something about these or other controversial matters? It's admirable to raise money to feed the hungry, protect abused children, gay rights, etc. but those are universally accepted causes.
10:19 AM Apr 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Shows you how the game has changed: nowadays (I think) every young pitcher is taught how to use the same motion for all his pitches, and I think that's pretty common among major league starters. In '47, though, Jackie comments on how that ability makes Johnny Sain an unusually gifted pitcher.
9:10 AM Apr 21st
 
mikeclaw
1. You are too hard on the movie's characterization of Jackie. The screenplay had to take a man whose life was very complex and condense it into a two-hour movie. Yes, corners are cut. Shortcuts. Not perfect, but understandable. It's a feature film, not a documentary.

2. You are very wrong to say that the culture of black athletes in the tradition of Jackie and Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe and Kareem and Ali is dead. It's not. I don't know if this is just a matter of you showing your age, a generation gap thing with today's athletes, or something else. But I actually find it very objectionable that you seem to think there are no intelligent, socially conscious black athletes today. With all due respect, I think that's a very ignorant statement.
9:47 AM Apr 20th
 
craigjolley
Right on.
1:02 PM Apr 19th
 
CWright
I readily agree that more could have been done to bring out Jackie's forthright nature and intelligence, but as it is I did not take Boseman's portrayal as that of "a typical jock: shy, unsure of his place in the world except within the confines of the diamond, relatively slow in thought and speech." I got the impression of someone who was confident, who knew who he was, but was wary of others.

You are also being ridiculously hard on the scene of Robinson looking at his child and whispering about how his child would know him. That is how a movie does "thought," which is exactly what you concede could have been in character.

What I felt most out of character was the bat smashing in the tunnel. That would be very unusual behavior in that era and it especially does not fit with my impression of how Robinson would have acted even in that extreme instance.

I enjoyed the movie a great deal despite the fact that it condenses some things from 1948 into those first few weeks of the 1947 season. I've never before been impressed with Harrison Ford's acting skills, but I really think he was outstanding in this case. I believe he should be nominated for the best actor award. Ultimately this movie works for me, and when I try to get a feel for why, it keeps coming back to Ford's performance as Rickey.

9:25 AM Apr 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
It's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


Good piece.
9:00 AM Apr 19th
 
 
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