There’s a story about pitcher Ralph Branca that I wish had made it into Brian Helgeland’s shamelessly sentimental hero’s life “42.”
Branca is the only survivor among those who took the field with Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers on that fateful day April 15, 1947, when Robinson integrated major league baseball and, as a consequence, helped change America. The integration of major league baseball was the first in any major American institution, preceding Harry Truman’s order to integrate America’s military forces by more than a year.
Earlier, the story goes, that the Brooklyn Dodgers were taking team pictures. An attempted team revolt over Robinson’s presence had already been quelled by Dodger management. But Robinson was, as yet, not truly accepted as a team member by one and all – not even close. No one, in fact, would stand next to him for the photographer.
Until Branca, very quietly, did just that.
It would have made for a nice vignette amid the many in “42.” As it is in Helgeland’s movie, we see that Branca was the second man on the team to shake his new African-American teammate’s hand in the locker room. And he’s used as comic relief in a scene where he coaxes Robinson during that first season to stop waiting until everyone else had a shower before taking his own.
“42” is, in its own way, a great movie for all its outrageous sentimentality and utterly shameless hokum – none of which was avoidable. We usually forget in the middle of the current media Babel in the “Age of Information” that there really is such a thing as genuine heroism in the world, not just hyped-up flackery. And the story of Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger boss Branch Rickey – the tough but visionary old man who brought Robinson into the major leagues – is it.
The story may seem like hokum, but so much of it is true – or at the very least what we all now accept as history. And what we know of it is truly extraordinary, the very beginning of an entirely different course for an entire postwar nation.
Rickey knew how exceptional was the quality of baseball in the Negro leagues. Nor was he alone among major league baseball leadership. But he was the one who wanted to bring its best into his league – sooner rather than later.
As he tells his assistants in the film, “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green. Every dollar is green.” And, in a pre-TV era, he wants the green dollars black baseball fans will spend.
He also wants the amazing talent of the Negro leagues in his league, which wasn’t quite as easy in his time. So, in “42’s” script, he searches for that perfect nation-altering pioneer. Catcher Roy Campanella? “Too sweet. They’d eat him alive.” Not pitcher Satchel Page either. “Too old.” Catcher Josh Gibson was already dead.
Robinson, says Rickey, is the one. A college man. A military veteran. A great ballplayer with a streak of tempered steel. (His military court martial was because he refused to sit in the back of a bus.) And, in a funny line, Rickey says about his deciding factor in choosing Robinson to join his Brooklyn Dodgers “he’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”
And when Robinson asks if he was chosen because Rickey wants someone with the guts to fight back, Rickey tells him “I want a player with the guts NOT to fight back.” To take abuse, then, and be the essence of nonviolent resistance on ballfields, and in airports and hotels and everywhere else a Jim Crow America will abuse him. (Mahatma Gandhi had just died in India. Change was in the air.)
And it’s all history. So is the rest of it that we see, with some poetic license necessary to glue all the known vignettes together.
The best-known cast members are Harrison Ford as Rickey, outrageously hokey in his first pure character part, and Christopher Meloni of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Oz” as Leo Durocher (“nice guys finish last”), the high-living manager who would have been Robinson’s first in the majors if his conspicuous high-flying love life hadn’t gotten in the way.
Chadwick Boseman is a solid if unremarkable Robinson. If it’s all sentimentalized on a young viewer’s level, it seems to me that’s apt. All this happened in the lifetime of some of us still very much here; there were bathrooms marked “white” and “colored.” It’s a world kids now need to know happened not all that long before Barack Obama.
I can’t think of a better way to teach them 20th century racial history than this film. And that leads to a small problem. There are a couple of verbally brutal scenes of legendary confrontations between Robinson’s Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman, a leather-lunged racist bench jockey from the deep South who screamed every hideous racist insult beyond the N-word that he could think of. It’s harrowing to watch in 2013 and will bruise the ears of more tender kids. But in the history of this extraordinary man, he no doubt heard so much worse.
It’s an important film – a corrective to the terminally ironic way we have come to think about our national life. It’s about what happens to an entire country when assaulted, without irony, by true nobility and courage.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Lucas Black, Christopher Meloni
Director: Brian Helgeland
Running time: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for rough language, including brutal, merciless racial insults.
The Lowdown: The great story of Jackie Robinson who integrated major league baseball and finally put America on the path to civil rights and racial equality.