April 11, 2013

Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey: Thoughts on 42 from a Lifelong Dodger Fan

In the movie 42, Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) repeatedly asks Branch Rickey why he is breaking baseball’s unwritten whites-only rule.  Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) gives very vague, unsatisfying responses each time.  What a blown dramatic opportunity.  In Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary masterpiece “Baseball,” an aged Red Barber (the Dodgers’ radio broadcaster) describes the executive’s motivation, as told to him by Rickey himself.   The following account from the New York Times in a 2012 article captures the basic story.

The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers’ president, Branch Rickey, said he had given a lot of thought to discrimination since his coaching days at Ohio Wesleyan University in the early 1900s.

He recalled that during a trip to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame, the team’s only black ballplayer, Charles Thomas, was denied a room. Rickey asked whether Thomas could sleep on a cot in his room, and the hotel clerk obliged.

Later that evening, Rickey said, he saw Thomas sobbing and rubbing his hands, saying: “Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them white.”

You can’t hear the story without being moved.  However, one could argue that 42 is Robinson’s story, and Rickey’s motivation is not entirely relevant.  Others have said Rickey over-emphasized or even embellished the Charles Thomas over the years.  But the fact remains Branch Rickey did what no one else in baseball would even consider doing.  His actions and his motivations are central to the entire story.  Was Rickey a showman and a bit of a pompous, self-righteous zealot?  Certainly, by all accounts.  But that’s what makes historical dramas soar: seeing every side of people who made history, in all their realistic humanity.  Remember, Branch Rickey not only brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues but also signed a young Roberto Clemente when he ran the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The man was an amazing trailblazer, and the audience would forgive the inclusion of an anecdote that is possibly stretched.

Many reviewers, including Mitch Salem, have pointed out that Jackie Robinson himself in 42 is not exactly a complicated, fully-dimensional character.  (More the fault of the script than the actor, in my opinion.)  Because of the film’s limited scope (only two baseball seasons), perhaps we only could see the Jackie that had to shut up and turn the other cheek over and over again.  That is probably letting the writer and director off too easily, but I will leave that judgment to a better critic or historian than I am.  In any case, for an amazingly detailed and insightful look at the fully-formed man, read Ron Rapoport’s story (from LA Observed) about his interview with Jackie in 1972, months before he died.  The strength, the dignity, the defiance, the pride and the determination are in full view in a great man dying way too young, trapped in a failing body ravaged by the stress and anguish of his great journey.

“I couldn’t care less if someone is out there wearing 42,” he said. “It is an honor, but I get more of a thrill knowing there are people in baseball who believe in advancement based on ability. I’m more concerned about what I think about myself than what other people think. I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do it’s because white America doesn’t like a black guy who stands up for what he believes. I don’t feel baseball owes me a thing and I don’t owe baseball a thing. I am glad I haven’t had to go to baseball on my knees.”

An hour passed speedily by and I knew it was time to go, to let him turn off the lamp and rest. But suddenly I was surprised to hear myself asking a question I had not prepared–one I had never asked a sports figure before and never expect to ask again. Had he ever, I wondered, thought about his place in history? His answer indicated that he had.

“I honestly believe that baseball did set the stage for many things that are happening today and I’m proud to have played a part in it.” Robinson said. “But I’m not subservient to it.”

Not willing to rest, in other words. Not willing to let his game, or his country, off the hook.

About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.