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When Jackie Robinson Played Jackie Robinson

A performance to keep in mind when the new Jackie Robinson movie opens this Friday.

By 4.10.13

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The widely anticipated Jackie Robinson biopic 42 will be released in theaters throughout North America on April 12. The relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson with Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager who saw to it that Major League Baseball’s color line was broken.

I am very much looking forward to this film. But this isn’t the first time the life of Jackie Robinson has made it to the silver screen. In 1950, the largely forgotten Eagle-Lion Films released The Jackie Robinson Story starring… Jackie Robinson.

That’s right. Just over three years after Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play Major League Baseball, he became the star of his own life story. I believe this is unique in cinematic history.

Co-starring with Robinson were Minor Watson as Rickey and a young Ruby Dee as Rachel Robinson (née Isum). Two years before taking this role, Dee married fellow actor Ossie Davis and remained married for 57 years until Davis passed away in 2005. Interestingly, both Rachel Robinson and Ruby Dee are 90 and still going strong.

The Jackie Robinson Story begins with two men hitting groundballs to boys on a sandlot. A 9-year old Robinson runs out on the field asking if he can play. The two men reluctantly let him field a couple of grounders. But after seeing the young Robinson field them without a glove, one of the men gives him a glove albeit a broken one.

We then see a summary of Robinson athletic exploits – setting the long jump record at Pasadena Junior College, starring in football and basketball at UCLA. But Robinson’s dream is baseball, a dream he does not believe he will attain. “It’s the one sport that will never let me in.”

Robinson fears that despite his college education, he will be consigned to the fate of his older brother Mack who has “a good, steady job.” That good, steady job is that of a night street cleaner. Mack Robinson was a great athlete in his own right. He won the silver medal in the 200-meter race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing 0.4 seconds behind gold medalist Jesse Owens. Despite coming so close to the gold medal there was no gold in them streets for the older Robinson brother.

After a stint in the Army, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues. It was there he came to the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth. Robinson’s Negro League teammates are skeptical of Sukeforth’s interest in him. But after Sukeforth convinces Robinson he really is with the Dodgers, Robinson comes face to face with Branch Rickey.

If contemporary liberals were to watch The Jackie Robinson Story, they would be undoubtedly appalled at Rickey calling Robinson boy on multiple occasions. Yet it would miss the point. Consider this dialogue between Rickey and Robinson when they meet for the first time:

RICKEY: There’s more than runs, hits and errors. The things you can see in a box score. A box score. You know a box score is really democratic, Jackie. It doesn’t say how big you are or how your father voted in the last election or what church you attended. It just tells you what kind of ballplayer you were that day.

ROBINSON: Well, isn’t that what counts?

RICKEY: It’s all that ought to count and maybe someday it’s all that will count.

In 2013, this is self-evident. In 1946, that was revolutionary.

Although Robinson did not take the field in Brooklyn until 1947, much of The Jackie Robinson Story focuses on the 1946 season that he spent with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers Triple A affiliate. Curiously, none of the scenes during his time with the Royals are set in Montreal. Robinson was welcome with open arms in La Belle Province, after all. The same could not be said when the Royals played on the road. Robinson was also viewed with disdain by Royals manager Clay Hopper. Here’s an exchange between Hopper and Rickey after Robinson made a great play during an intersquad game:

RICKEY: No other human being could have made that play.

HOPPER: Mr. Rickey, you really think he is a human being? 

But after Robinson led the Royals to the International League pennant, Hopper changed his tune and lauded both Robinson’s competitiveness on the field and gentlemanly conduct off. It wouldn’t be the last time Robinson would change someone’s mind.

As with most biopics, creative license is utilized. In the movie, Robinson collects a triple in his first big league at bat. In reality, Robinson went 0 for 3 although he did reach base on a fielding error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field.

Another pivotal scene has Rickey confront several members of the Dodgers who have drawn up a petition opposing Robinson’s presence on the team. Although Rickey did admonish Dodger players who signed the petition, he did so after they were read the riot act by Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. Leo the Lip famously told the dissenting Dodgers: 

I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are traded.

But Durocher does not make an appearance in The Jackie Robinson Story. Prior to Robinson’s debut, Durocher was suspended by MLB Commissioner “Happy” Chandler for the 1947 season for allegedly having association with gamblers. Burt Shotton would lead the Dodgers to the NL pennant that season.

I can understand the omission of Durocher in The Jackie Robinson Story but I cannot understand the omission of Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around his double-play partner after fans at Crosley Field in Cincinnati unmercifully heckled Robinson. This gesture stunned the crowd into silence.

Nor can I understand the omission of Dodgers broadcasting legend Red Barber. While The Jackie Robinson Story featured sports announcers Bill Baldwin and Sam Balter (who like Mack Robinson represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympics), a Brooklyn Dodgers game just isn’t a Brooklyn Dodgers game without Red Barber.

Fortunately, 42 does includes Durocher, Reese, and Barber, who are integral parts of The Jackie Robinson Story. I am particularly interested in seeing former Law & Order: SVU  alum Christopher Meloni’s interpretation of Durocher as well as how John C. McGinley of Scrubs fame handles Barber’s wiry voice.

However, I am fairly certain we won’t see 42 conclude with Robinson testifying in front of Congress to warn us (albeit indirectly) against the evils of Communism. “Democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it,” says Robinson.

Don’t get me wrong. I think 42 will be wonderful and will make a star of Chadwick Boseman. But nobody could play Jackie Robinson like Jackie Robinson.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.