Since I am disdainful of worshipful biopics to begin with, my expectations for “42” were even lower than they were for “Philomena”. I was also annoyed with the oversaturated commercials for the movie that left you with the impression that it would be shallow entertainment at best. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised.
Although the film has flaws (how could it be otherwise given its Hollywood origins?), it was a serious attempt to dramatize Jackie Robinson’s epic struggle to integrate professional baseball with solid performances all-round, especially from Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger general manager who decided to break the color barrier. As I will get into later, Dave Zirin is quite right in pointing out how the film left out the broader civil rights movement within the post-WWII historical context. But if you are a leftist parent with young kids, the film is great family entertainment and an opportunity to refer them to books or films about the civil rights movement. That’s what commie parents are for, after all. Just don’t overdo it!
The film was directed and written by Brian Helgeland, who has functioned mostly as a writer during a 25 year Hollywood career. Most of his films have been junk like “Salt”, the 2010 spy movie starring Angelina Jolie that was deemed rotten by 38 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics.
What works best in “42” is the fairly detailed and thoughtful accounts of what went on in the locker rooms and on the field, something that was entirely missing from “The Jackie Robinson Story” discussed below. For someone my age, who collected baseball cards obsessively in the mid-50s and practically memorized the Baseball Encyclopedia, it is really a delight to see the baseball players of that wonderful period brought to life with both their flaws and their virtues. The film depicts a petition campaign to get Robinson off the team organized by Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Dixie Walker, who as his name implies, was a racist. It also shows the role played by Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop from Kentucky who originally lined up with Walker. It was only his fierce desire to compete that made him overcome his bigotry. Once he got to know Robinson as a teammate and a human being, his feelings grew even warmer—so much so that at a time when Robinson was putting up with the worst racist taunts, he made sure to be seen with his arm draped around Robinson’s shoulder at the beginning of a game in Pittsburgh.
But the most dramatic moments involved Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman baiting Jackie Robinson when he arrives for the first time in the “city of brotherly love”. Chapman’s taunts can be heard throughout the stadium, calling Robinson a “nigger” and a “monkey”. At the end of the game, reporters ask Chapman to explain his behavior. He defends himself by saying that this goes on all the time in baseball. Joe DiMaggio was called a “wop” and Hank Greenberg a “kike” from the sidelines. Robinson finally put a cork in Chapman’s mouth by hitting a game-winning home run.
Allan Barra, a left-leaning sportswriter like Zirin, interviewed Alabama native Ben Chapman back in April 2013 for the Atlantic Monthly. While Chapman apparently is no longer quite the bigot he was back in the 1950s, he continues to explain his behavior in terms of how people describe Howard Stern: an equal opportunity offender. But Barra explains how some people were more equal than others:
In one of the most intense scenes in the film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson that first season when he broke the color barrier, Chapman’s abuse of Robinson is recreated with chilling effect. What hit me like a fastball to the side of the head, though, was the next scene where reporters grill Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk): The movie Chapman defends his behavior in almost exactly the same way the real Ben Chapman did to me.
It was then I realized that for more than three decades Chapman must have been telling reporters the same things he had told me.
Over the years, retired players and sportswriters I’ve talked to have confirmed that, yes, baseball banter was pretty harsh back then and ethnic slurs and insults were a big part of Depression-era and post-World War II baseball. They did say those things to DiMaggio and Greenberg, and, yes, a lot of northern players did harass southern boys mercilessly. (Sample: Ed Walsh, born and raised in Pennsylvania, loved to yell at. Georgia-born Ty Cobb, “Cobb, I hear you’re from Royston, where men are men and sheep are nervous!”)
But as Lester Rodney—”Press Box Red,” who wrote about sports for the Communist paper The Daily Worker—once told me, “That Chapman, he was something special. He could taunt with a viciousness that would have made Ty Cobb blush.” As Rodney pointed out, DiMaggio and Greenberg could give it right back, but Robinson wasn’t allowed to: “Jackie had promised Branch Rickey that in his first season he wouldn’t fight back.”
Dave Zirin’s problems with “42” are of course right on the money:
Early in the film, Jackie Robinson, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, says, “I don’t think it matters what I believe. Only what I do.” Unfortunately that quote is like a guiding compass for all that follows. The filmmakers don’t seem to care what Robinson—a deeply political human being—believed either. Instead 42 rests on the classical Hollywood formula of “Heroic individual sees obstacle. Obstacle is overcome. The End.” That works for Die Hard or American Pie. It doesn’t work for a story about an individual deeply immersed and affected by the grand social movements and events of his time. Jackie Robinson’s experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all.
Considering all this, it is somewhat surprising that Zirin did not mention Lester Rodney in his article. The film includes Black sportswriter Lester Mitchell (Andre Holland) as a major character. Shown throughout the film pecking away at a portable typewriter in the stands, he finally explains that he is a victim of segregation as well. Black sports writers were not allowed in the white-only press box. Mitchell is key character in the film. But it would have been even better if Rodney had been included as well.
The aforementioned Barra, who used to write for the Village Voice when it was readable, did a memorable interview with Lester Rodney in 2003 that is fortunately still online. The paper might be crap but the archives are a gold mine:
The Best Red Sportswriter
Commie Columnist Lester Rodney’s Fight for Jackie Robinson
By Allen Barra Tuesday, Oct 14 2003
For nearly a quarter of a century, Lester Rodney was the sports columnist and sports editor for The Daily Worker, the largest and most influential Communist newspaper in the U.S. For more than a decade he was one of the leading agitators for the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. In the 1940s, he became an intriguing footnote to the signing of Jackie Robinson and other black ballplayers.
Thanks to the publication of Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports (Temple University Press) by Irwin Silber, Rodney’s story becomes much more than a footnote, and his role as one of the key figures in the most important era in baseball history is established. Rodney, now 92, spoke to us from his home in the Bay Area.
VV: For decades you were an outsider. Now I see on the Internet that your story is available online at Wal-Mart.
LR: I never thought I’d live to see that.
VV: Who do you like in the Series this year?
LR: Well, how can I not root for the Cubs? The Red Sox created a lot of their own misery over the last 50 years with their racial policy.
VV: I know. They passed up a chance to sign Willie Mays. Instead of “the Curse of the Bambino,” they ought to call it “the Curse of Willie Mays.”
LR: I think when you get away from the Eastern seaboard, the Cubs are a much more interesting story. You gotta root for Dusty Baker.
VV: The last time the Cubs were in the World Series was 1945, and about 10 days after it was over, you received a telegram from a friend saying that Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson.
LR: Yeah, I was a sergeant in the army serving in the Pacific, and a friend sent me a telegram saying, “You did it!” I didn’t do it, of course. Many people did it. But I have to admit that it was one of the proudest days of my life.
VV: You were one of the leading agitators with your open letters to Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis—
LR: A blatant racist. The baseball owners of that period couldn’t have picked a more appropriate man to represent their policies. He simply kept denying that there was a color barrier. I would write stories with headlines like “Can You Read, Judge Landis?” and “Can You Hear, Judge Landis?” I know we got to him. The Daily Worker didn’t have a big circulation, but we got noticed, and what we wrote was read by people in baseball and by other journalists. We had an advantage over the black press of the period, whom most sportswriters could simply ignore because their work wasn’t seen by many white people.
VV: I can’t imagine what it must have been like getting the players, the owners, and other journalists to accept you. How often did the issue of Communism come up?
LR: To tell you the truth, not very often. I think some players just thought it was a trade union paper or something.
VV: But why did the owners give you access?
LR: Hey, I was helping to bring some business in. (Laughs.) They were capitalists, they wanted to sell tickets. They didn’t care whom they sold the tickets to.
VV: What about the other journalists?
LR: It took a while for them to accept me, but once I did it I got along pretty well with most of them.
VV: One of the things I liked about Press Box Red is that you get to see a side of some people that you might never see anywhere else.
LR: That’s true. I saw some sides of ballplayers that others didn’t because they weren’t asking them the same questions I was. Joe DiMaggio, for instance. It stirred up a lot of fuss when DiMaggio was honest enough to admit to me that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw. That took guts, and it was honest. I had a lot of respect for Joe back then. He changed when the aura of superstardom overcame him, but he had a decency in him that you didn’t see in too many guys. Leo Durocher, too. Leo was very open in his praise of black ballplayers. You heard a lot of stuff about Leo, both good and bad. I think it’s all true. But somewhere it’s got to go on the ledger that he helped integration.
There are two good things that you can say about “The Jackie Robinson Story”. Number one, it is free:
The second thing, more importantly, is that you see Jackie Robinson playing himself on and off the field. There are very few opportunities for young people today to see baseball during its golden age nowadays and moreover to see one of its all-time greats. That being said, the film is poorly written, directed, and acted but a must-see for a chance to see the thirty-one-year old Jackie Robinson swinging a bat and stealing bases.
At the very moment that “42” was showing in Cineplexes all around the country, newspapers were reporting on the vanishing African-American presence in baseball today, not a function of de jure segregation but of the de facto segregation that rules today. If you’ve seen my review of a documentary on the NCAA, you’ll recall that “amateur” college athletics was designed originally to keep working class kids out of sports like football, which during Teddy Roosevelt’s time was white only. That only changed when colleges figured out that championship football and baseball teams could generate millions. And the only way to win championships was by recruiting Black players and giving them scholarships. Those scholarships were still one-sided since the school paid pennies in exchange for receiving millions from ticket sales, TV rights, and merchandise franchising.
Apparently, baseball remains a preserve for the lily-white as explained in an April 10, 2013 NY Times article titled “Looking Into the Decline in African-American Players”. In 1970 Black players (including Black Latinos) constituted 27 percent on baseball rosters; now it is 8.5 percent. This explains why:
LaTroy Hawkins, the veteran reliever for the Mets, said Monday that baseball in the United States had become a game for the rich. Hawkins, who is African-American, said the main problem was that N.C.A.A. Division I baseball programs offered so few scholarships compared with other sports.
Top-level college football programs offer 85 scholarships, all full rides. Division I basketball programs offer 13 full scholarships, also full rides. Division I baseball programs offer 11.7 scholarships, but those are often divided among many players.
“Kids in the inner city play basketball and football, because they give out full scholarships and parents don’t have to worry about anything,” Hawkins said. “In baseball they give out quarter scholarships. That’s what needs to change.
“In the inner city, you need to get a scholarship because most families can’t afford to send a kid to school, especially when you’ve got more than one. You need to get a scholarship, and baseball doesn’t provide that luxury.”
Hawkins also noted that, well before college, specializing in baseball can mean expensive travel teams and a year-round commitment.
“I played 17 games in high school; I’d have gotten burned out with that much baseball,” Hawkins, a native of Gary, Ind., said of today’s schedules. “But that’s what it requires now, because if you don’t, all the kids that don’t live in the inner city and live in the affluent neighborhoods, they’re getting ahead of you. You might be a better athlete than they are, but as far as a skilled player, you can’t keep up with that.”