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The movie ‘42’ does its job, but there was much more to the life of Jackie Robinson, the man

Though he has been dead four decades now, there is again much ado about Jackie Robinson. Get used to it, for it has only just begun.

If throughout his rich after-life Robinson’s growth in stature has been spectacular, we may not have seen anything yet. Very few of even the most fabled characters in the culture have had the capacity to essentially re-invent themselves posthumously to suit the needs of every generation. That’s been the genius of the Abraham Lincoln legend over the last century and half.

Now we have the memory of a mere baseball player being graced with the same near-mystical charms. It’s remarkable. The revisionists never got to old Abe and it looks like Number 42 is beyond their reach, too. Maybe that’s the definition of a secular saint: One who defies the gravitational pull of the on-rushing years.

Actually, it took a while for the Robinson bandwagon to really get rolling. His much too early death in 1972 – at the age of only 52 – took years to absorb. It was in 1997 and the 50th anniversary of his historic breakthrough with the Dodgers that his stature began to soar.

The honorifics since extended him have included a notably annual pageant with everyone active in the game wearing Jackie’s number every April on the anniversary of his Dodger debut. No other person who has ever played anything anywhere has ever been so honored.

Emphasizing all that even more this year, we have the commissioner ordering – in the name of Robinson – a special study by a panel of deep-thinkers to figure out why more African Americans aren’t interested in playing baseball anymore. Bud Selig is apparently embarrassed that only eight percent of his major league player-personnel is African American (62 percent is Caucasian). Finding it a particularly safe harbor, Czar Selig has wrapped himself in the mantle of Robinson’s cause from the get-go.

It’s interesting, perhaps, but this proposed “study” seems a dubious project. Does Selig have quotas in mind? What do you think would be the reaction if Commissioner David Stern ordered a study of why only an increasingly smaller percentage of his NBA players are Caucasian?
If there are no external forces restricting opportunity, there should be no issue about who plays what or why, and therefore no need for a highly publicized inquiry. If there are forces restricting opportunity, any such probe should be conducted by Congress, or the Justice Department. It’s a slippery slope Selig is mounting. I further wonder what the relentlessly independent-minded Robinson might have said about it. You might be surprised.

But the big wrinkle of 2013 is “the movie.” Long anticipated and essentially an authorized work, Hollywood’s latest attempt to get its loving arms around the Robinson saga is a major bio-pic simply entitled “42.”

After touching upon Jackie’s anointing by the Dodgers’ irascible Mahatma, Branch Rickey, to be the messianic man ordained to integrate the game, the film focuses entirely on his raucous rookie season of 1947, which was filled with choice examples of the vile discourse that so long characterized America’s racial angst.

In terms of content, ‘42’ gets good grades. If it adds nothing new nor breaks no new ground, it takes no liberties with the basic truths of that turgid season-long melodrama, either. The facts, while familiar, are accurate, often painfully so, and carefully detailed. In that it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, which is properly famed for its ability to distort historical figures well beyond recognition, that’s both important and no small achievement.

In terms of cinematic drama, on the other hand, I can only wonder. Of course to those who know the story inside-out there’s no suspense in all the shocking detail. Those with a relatively casual awareness might react differently. I’m no film critic but I found this flick a bit stilted and plodding in its repetitions, over-acted in places, and dissolving too often in mere schmaltz. I doubt it will reap much kudos in next winter’s annual cinema-awards season.

Redeeming much of this, however, are the fine performances of Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Beharie as his exquisite Rachel, still, by the way, undaunted and unbowed at the age of 90. Brooklyn-born and Oxford-educated, Boseman looks every inch an athlete. This is no Gary Cooper sincerely stumbling through an imitation of Lou Gehrig let alone a Tony Perkins making a fool of himself as Jimmy Piersall. Bozeman is believable as a ballplayer. His evocation of Robinson’s fiery mannerisms at bat and on the bases is terrific. If neither Bozeman nor Beharie is yet a household movie-name, their work in ‘42’ sure won’t hold either back.

As the alleged star in the cast, though, the venerable Harrison Ford as the rascal Rickey, who was a master of the spoken word, may get more attention. The dialogue thereby handed Ford is rich and he handles it wonderfully. He looks the part and owns the guy. But the Rickey that evolves is gravely incomplete. There was plenty of “con” in ole Branch’s legendary act and his motives in everything he did were invariably mixed. All that we get in this version is the altruistic Bible-Belter on a divinely inspired mission. There was much more to this man, not all of it so pretty.

The complaint here is with the writing, not the acting. And when Hollywood does such a movie – based, they claim, entirely “on fact” – it tends to become the definitive version for the masses, which in this case means all the casual fans, and that’s the vast majority.  It’s the danger invariably entailed when Hollywood purports to deal sincerely with reality.

So it’s the sainted Rickey that will emerge as the real Rickey. And it will be the stoic Robinson enduring wretched indignity with the resignation of a true martyr that will displace, in the ultimate myth, the “real guy” who was so much more difficult, controversial, conflicted, and, yes, interesting. So it goes in the popular culture.
True heroes are recalled in this movie and they are still worth celebrating. However one-dimensional the portrayal of Robinson may be, his immense courage is exalted for yet another generation to ponder and that’s a good thing. Other heroes of this very complex tale like Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca, Eddie Stanky, Clyde Sukeforth, Bobby Bragan, Burt Shotton, Leo Durocher, and all those terrific people whose cheers and encouragement overwhelmed all the racial taunts and epithets receive their due. And that’s only just.

But ‘42’ is not a portrait of how the so-called “color line” was busted in baseball, advancing the valiant cause of civil rights in this country. However magnified, what happened in Brooklyn that long-ago summer was only a slice, the full tale being so much more complex and long and sad.

It’s a small matter, maybe, but it seems further unfortunate that once again the extraordinary role of Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians, and Larry Doby is being snubbed in favor of the unqualified glorification of the ‘47 Dodgers. It was less than three months after Robinson debuted that Veeck introduced Doby, thereby integrating the American League.

Moreover, Veeck had been angling to integrate the game by out-witting Judge Landis, the virulently racist baseball commissioner, well before Rickey decided the time was right, for him. In 1943, Veeck tried to buy the Phillies with the promise that if he succeeded he would stock the team with black players [plural], only to be thwarted by the hateful commissioner. So Veeck ambled off to the Marines and World War II, where he lost his leg.

It seems to me there might have been a mention of that, don’t you think? Maybe they’ll make a movie about it someday. Veeck was priceless and every bit Rickey’s equal in this noble cause.

Catch the movie. You’ll find it uplifting, if flawed. But for the whole story may I refer you to a brilliantly detailed and researched book, “Baseball’s Great Experiment” (1982), by Professor Jules Tygiel. It’s the source of all the movie’s best stuff. Coincidentally, the professor died just a couple of weeks ago.