“How come it took so long for someone to make this movie?” I ask out loud, raising my voice a tick to be heard above the music. “Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about Jackie Robinson before now?”
As the credits roll on the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, and as Sister Wynona Carr sings the obscure but peppy sports-and-gospel anthem “The Ball Game” (“Jesus is standing at the home plate, waiting for you there/Life is a ballgame, but you have to play it fair”), journalist-author Dan Fost grins.
It’s the grin of a guy who is used to being asked difficult trivia questions, and usually knows the answers.
“There actually was a movie about Jackie Robinson, made in the early 1950s,” Fost says, “and I’m pretty sure it starred Jackie Robinson as himself. It apparently glossed over a lot of the things that happened, but at least someone made a film about him during his lifetime.”
“Really? It starred Jackie Robinson? How did I not know about this?” I ask, rising to leave as the credits come to a close (and for what it’s worth, Fost also recognized Sister Wynona Carr’s ballgame song, and owns a CD with it and other baseball tunes from the 1940s.)
Fost grins again.
“It’s a pretty obscure movie,” he shrugs.
And there you have it. One inning into our early afternoon post-film conversation, and the score is already lopsided, with the Movie Trivia Guy striking out and the Baseball Trivia Guy scoring twice.
This is going to be fun.
Dan Fost (www.danfost.com) is a Bay Area freelance writer specializing in education, business and technology journalism. His work has been seen locally in San Francisco Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and nationally in The New York Times, USA Today, and Popular Science. He is also the author of the book Giants: Past and Present ($25.00, MVP Books, 2013), a brand new edition of which has just been released, freshly updated to include juicy factoids and details from the Giants’ 2012 World Series win. Packed with the photos and stories from the Giants decades-long history.
Jackie Robinson, of course—the first African-American baseball player on a major league baseball team, and one of the greatest ballplayers of all time—played for the Dodgers.
That, along with the fact that he famously supported Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, just proves once again that nobody, even a legend like Jackie Robinson, is entirely perfect.
Though one wouldn’t know that from 42. Graceful, emotionally rich, but occasionally a tad corny and uneven, the movie succeeds best as illustrating the difficulties faced by Robinson (an excellent Chadwick Boseman), who broke into the fiercely segregated baseball system in 1947, years before the civil rights movement began to take hold in a deeply entrenched America. Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (an impressively shape-shifting Harrison Ford), for reasons that straddle the line between business and idealism, recruited Robinson with the full awareness that breaking the color barrier would be risky, especially for Robinson. The movie includes a number of scenes depicting the verbal and physical abuse, including thousands of death threats, which Robinson endured with a remarkable amount of strength and an almost superhuman sense of inner guts and self-control.
“It’s a very emotional film, in places,” admits Fost, agreeing that there are not many people who will be able to avoid choking up during some of the films more powerful depictions of Robinson facing the fires of racism and hate. “On the other hand,” he adds, “I loved it, but I don’t know if I loved it because it was a great movie—which it probably isn’t, or because it was a great story. This is a great story, and it’s a baseball story too. And I love baseball stories, so …”
I mention that movies about “firsts” are often powerful, films that trace the path of the first African American fighter pilots, or look forward to the first female president. It makes Fost think of the scene in 42 where Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, attempting to reach out to Robinson, encourages him to shower with the rest of the team.
“That scene, where Branca is saying, ‘Shower with me Jackie!’ then he gets all uncomfortable, and starts going, ‘I mean … I don’t mean shower with me… I mean, shower with us … I mean …’ Watching that scene, I was thinking, I wonder if 50 years from now, we’ll be watching a biopic of the first openly gay baseball player in the major leagues. I wondered if that scene in the movie was a veiled way of making the point that baseball still has some catching up to do.”
“So…Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947…” I ask Fost, “but how long was it before the Giants integrated their team? And who was the first African-American to play for the Giants?”
“There were two,” he says. “It was Monty Irvin and Hank Thompson. It was two years after Jackie started playing for the Dodgers. Irvin was an established star in the Negro Leagues, and he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was near the end of his career by the time baseball integrated, so when he started playing for the Giants, he only had a few more years to go.
“In 2010,” he continues, “they decided to retire his number. Jackie Robinson, of course, was number 42. Monty Irvin was number 20. So there was a big ceremony, and all the living Hall-of-Famers were there—Mays, McCovey, Marichel. Mays told great stories about how Irvin helped him along in his career.”
“2010. The year the Giants won the World Series,” I remark.
“Exactly,” Fost says, grinning again. “After 50 years in San Francisco, without ever winning the World Series, they finally win the year that Monty Irvin was properly honored for his contributions to the Giants. There are those who say it was a kind of karmic thing. The Giants finally did the right thing—and good things came of it.”
Fost has one more surprising bit of trivia to drop.
“In Jackie Robinson’s original Hall of Fame plaque, hanging in Cooperstown, there was no mention of integration,” he says.
“What? Really? How is that possible?”
“Well, that’s the thing about baseball, as the narrator says at the beginning of the movie—baseball players are known by their statistics. How many runs. How many strike outs. How many wins. It’s the ultimate equalizer. In the end, the color of a players skin doesn’t matter.
“Like the song says,” Fost smiles, “in the end, it’s how you play the game that matters—and that’s all, right?”