“42”: A Beautiful Profile in Courage

April 18, 1946: Jersey City 3rd baseman Larry Miggins takes late throwing on a sliding Jackie Robinson in the latter's debut game into organized baseball.(Photo Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.)

April 18, 1946: Jersey City 3rd baseman Larry Miggins takes late throwing on a sliding Jackie Robinson in the latter’s debut game into organized baseball.(Photo Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.)

In writing and producing “42”, filmmaker Brian Helgeland has hit one out of the park. He says that he wanted to make an accurate movie that showed Jackie Robinson’s personal courage – and that’s what he’s done. Along the way, we also get to see and emotionally experience the courage of Robinson and others, like his boss and mentor, Branch Rickey;  his loving wife Rachel; his struggling-to-grow-into-their-own-big-shoes teammates, fellows like Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky, Bobby Bragan, and Ralph Branca; writer Wendell Smith; and all of the little everyday people, from kids to adults, both black and white, who pull for Jackie’s success as their own hero for fair play and baseball opportunity based upon performance, even in a time and across certain Deep South places it wasn’t exactly popular for them to do so.

Two hours plus is not a lot of time for storytellers, but it is just about the brink of the blowout hour for today’s attention spans. With that in mind, Helgeland leaves out a lot of in-depth detail about Jackie’s life prior to his recruitment by Rickey for the Dodgers. On the clock, “42” takes place between Robinson’s 1945 signing by Rickey through the time the Dodgers win the pennant in his 1947 rookie year.

It was enough key time in the life of Jackie Robinson to profile both the ugliness of racism and the courage it took for Robinson and those who involved themselves in the process to show either their courage or their cowardice.

Branch Rickey was the architect of it all. The man loved baseball, but he admittedly had been living with regret since the early days of his turn-of-the-20th-century coaching experience at Ohio Wesleyan College that he had not done more to strike back at the racism that ruined the sport for one of his black players so long ago. In the movie, Rickey admits to Robinson that he needs to take this step against the organized baseball color line to restore his full love of the game.

He also is not pure of heart. Rickey admits to others at another point that he is aware that the color “green” is one that only comes to winners, and that the employment of great black ball players increases both the chances for winning as much as it also expands the fan base to include the growing population of black fans. He is not talking about a plan to destroy the Negro Leagues, but it is pretty well understood by everyone at that time that organized black baseball only exists because of segregation and the color line – and that the total fall of these barriers will sound the death knell for a racially segregated league for blacks. – The movie doesn’t touch the concerns that Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles and other Negro League team owners had about compensation payments for MLB signings of their stars.

Jackie Robinson, of course, is the man given the Rickey charge of responsibility in this groundbreaking role: “I want a man with the courage not to fight back!” As such, Robinson has to endure the quiet to underhanded forms of racism that come to him from certain teammates to the horribly flagrant vitriol that pours from the n-word flowing mouth of Ben Chapman, the heckling manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Add to that combination a file cabinet filled with hateful, mindless, and often marginally literate death-threat mail and the National League Season of 1947 doesn’t exactly stack up as the Summer of Love for Jackie Robinson.

Rachel Robinson is the loving young wife of Jackie and the new mother of their only son. A California girl, on her own in the Deep South Florida training base of the Dodgers in 1946, is exposed to segregated rest rooms and drinking fountains for the first time (along with segregated everything else) and has to deal with it on her own as the only wife in camp of any color. She, of course, also has to deal with the cruel things people yell from the stands to her husband and also bear the courage not to explode in public from the baiting. And she is as cool as Jackie to the challenge.

Then there are the teammates. Ralph Branca befriends Jackie from the start, leaving himself open to the job of dealing with the racist element that is offended that he will not sign their “get rid of Robinson or else” petition. Pee Wee Reese just lays it on the line with the petitioners: “I’ll play ball with any man who proves he’s good enough to handle his job on the field. If Robinson proves himself there, that’s good enough for me.” Before his suspension for a year on a morals charge, manager Leo Durocher tears the petition crowd apart with a clear statement: “I don’t care what color a player is if he can do the job. He can have stripes like a zebra for all I care. If you guys don’t want to play in Brooklyn by our game plan, just meet me in Mr. Rickey’s office and we will do all we can to move you out of here.” Eddie Stanky finally walks over to Phillies manager Chapman during the famous ugly heckler game and threatens to bust his chops if he doesn’t get off Robinson’s back. When Jackie later tries to thank Stanky, the latter just brushes it off with “I’m supposed to take up for you. You’re my teammate.”

When a road trip crowd at Cincinnati begins to boo Jackie while the Dodgers are in the field, Pee Wee Reese, who has a lot of friends and family in the area, calls time out. He races across the infield from short to first and simply puts his arm around Robinson as the two then face the crowd and look into the stands. Boos turn to cheers. Asked later why he did what he did, Reese answers, “I wanted them to know who I am.”

Finally, young Bobby Bragan goes to Mr. Rickey and asks to have his name removed from the list of players who have asked to be traded since the “Dump Robinson” petition was killed. As an Alabama native, Bragan had been one of those who had grown up in a racist culture that valued segregation as the only way of life, but he had gotten to know Jackie Robinson and now felt differently. When asked by Rickey what has changed, Bragan explains in words that come across clearly: “Life is about change – and I’ve changed too. I’ve grown up.”

Please note: None of the quotes I’ve offered here are anything but paraphrases. I wasn’t memorizing the script; I was watching the movie – a movie that fully absorbed me – and it was my favorite kind of movie, one in which the real life good guys triumph over the real life bad guys. I may have missed some exact quotes, but I think I got full-bore what each was saying.

Chadwick Boseman did a fine job in his portrayal of Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford, flat-out, WAS Branch Rickey in every way you measure looks, mannerisms, actions, and attitude. His Mahatma performance gets my early thumbs up for a nomination in the best supporting actor category.

The visuals and costuming are out of this world true to Post WWII – and Ebbets Field dances before our eyes like an animated baseball card. It really appears to be still with us on a stretch of land in Brooklyn that includes a border on Bedford Avenue.

Anyway, check out “42” for yourselves. If you like Jackie Robinson and what he accomplished, just relax and be prepared for an educational and entertaining afternoon or evening.

My movie experience was also enhanced by the company I keep. I watched the film on Friday afternoon, aril 12th, at the Greenway 24 Cinema with one of the seven survivors from Jackie Robinson’s first organized baseball game at Jersey City on April 18, 1946, one of my childhood Houston Buff heroes and very dearest friends, Mr. Larry Miggins.

Ain’t life grand?


2 Responses to ““42”: A Beautiful Profile in Courage”

  1. “42″: A Beautiful Profile in Courage | City of Newark Delaware Says:

    […] City of Newark Delaware Headlines […]

  2. Maxwell Kates: “42” – A Film Review | The Pecan Park Eagle Says:

    […] https://bill37mccurdy.com/2013/04/13/42-a-beautiful-profile-in-courage/ […]

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