You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate, enjoy and possibly choke up a bit, when you see “42.” It’s the story of 18 months in the life and career of Jackie Robinson. As with the few outstanding “baseball movies,” e.g., “Bull Durham,” “Bang The Drum Slowly,” “42” is not simply about baseball. Rather it is a fascinating study of a chunk of American society around the middle of the Twentieth Century, and some reflections on the inner workings of two of the movie’s main characters, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
When World War II ended and America again embraced baseball as the National Game, society was changing. A few racial barriers had come down as a result of the exposure of different races during the war. However, baseball still maintained its 60 plus years of the white man’s wall. It was well known that the baseball commissioner, Judge Landis, and one of the sport’s heroes, Ty Cobb, were blatant and unapologetic racists. Enter Branch Rickey, owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that struggled in mediocrity for many years (with the notable exception of 1941 when “Dem Bums” as they were lovingly known, won the National League pennant). Rickey, a cigar chomping, pious bible quoter and baseball lover, was also acutely aware of the need to improve the Dodgers and bring more people to tiny Ebbets Field. But, Rickey was much more. He devoutly wanted to breech the barrier against black players.
This is where the film starts. Jackie Robinson, a talented athlete, graduate of UCLA, Army Lieutenant, is searching for a career and joins the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black team in the then Negro League. Robinson is accurately and seriously played by Chadwick Boseman, who not only captures Robinson’s personality, but also his mannerisms – even the unusual way he batted and ran the bases. Rickey was looking for “the right negro” to bring into the major leagues. Landis was gone, and the time was finally appropriate to test the system. After extensive research and scouting, Rickey settled on Robinson as his candidate because of Robinson’s education, bearing and athleticism. He brought Robinson to Brooklyn for an interview. Harrison Ford, in an unusual role switch, plays Rickey to perfection. Ford is wonderful. He captures Rickey’s piety and dedication, and tells Robinson that he wants aplayer “who has the guts not to fight back” against the inevitable hatred and abuse that will come Robinson’s way just because of the color of his skin.
Robinson accepts and proposes to his beloved Rachel (Nicole Beharie). She accepts, and the challenge is underway for both of them. Robinson reports to the Dodgers’ top farm team – Montreal, where he immediately got a taste of the widespread racism he would experience in the next few years. In his first season, he burned up the International League and Rickey brought him up to the Dodgers in 1947 as a first baseman. The movie really takes off at this point, showing the vitriol Robinson experienced, even from his own teammates, including Kirby Higbe and Dixie Walker, two heroes of the 1941 team.
Boseman expertly shows Robinson as he struggles to honor his vow to Rickey not to fight back for the first year or so, as he proves himself as a true major leaguer. He also depicts the loner Robinson was throughout his career, and does it in a straightforward, moving way. Robinson was beaned by Pirates’ pitcher Fritz Ostermueller; spiked by Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter, and subject to some incredible verbal abuse by the Phillies’ blatant racist manager, Ben Chapman. He was subjected to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of threatening letters, and proposed strikes by some of his own teammates, as well as other teams.
The movie lingers on the oft reported moment, purportedly in Cincinnati, when Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ shortstop, a southerner from Kentucky, took time to walk from his position at shortstop to put his arm around Robinson and say to him “Maybe someday we’ll all wear 42” (Robinson’s number). The scene is moving and superbly played by Boseman and Lucas Black as Reese. (NOTE: It’s not clear that the scene actually happened as shown in the movie; more likely it occurred in 1948 when Robinson shifted to second base, but a bit of poetic license is particularly appropriate in this otherwise completely accurate film).
Other true characters are well played: John C. McGinley as Dodgers’ radio maestro Red Barber; Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca and, to a lesser extent Andre Holland as Pittsburgh sportswriter Wendell Smith. Director Brian Helgeland expertly guided the cast in a memorable movie.
By the way, Pee Wee was a prophet. Every season major leaguers wear number 42 on one day in the season, and the number has been retired for all active players.