When I was growing up, Jackie Robinson was the Dodger I disliked the
most. It had nothing to do with his race. I was a Yankee fan and Jackie
was a hated Brooklyn Dodger. Actually, it was a compliment to him that I
didn’t like him because he epitomized his competitiveness with the
Dodgers and I did not want them to beat the Yankees.
During Robinson's ten-year tenure with the Dodgers, they faced the
Yankees in the World Series six times, 1947, 49, 52, 53, 55, and 56 (the
Bums lost the 1950 pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 10th
inning of the last game of the season and lost the 1951 pennant to the
New York Giants in the last inning of the third playoff game on Bobby
Thomson's historic homerun; with a little luck they would have faced the
Yankees in five consecutive World Series). This was baseball’s golden
era and Robinson was the best player on the Dodgers, so he was the one
Yankee fans hated the most.
Later, when I grew up, I came to not only admire Jackie, but to revere
him. I think he was the greatest American of the 20th
century, and not just because he was a great baseball player. What he
went through in breaking the color line in baseball was heroic, even
saintly and had ramifications far beyond the baseball world and the
world of sport.
This film brilliantly captures what Robinson faced in 1946 and 1947. It
shows the blatant racism of the players and the Establishment, the
horrible slurs that were thrown at him, how alone he was, the only black
baseball player in all of professional baseball. It shows how many of
his Dodger teammates were against him, and those that were for him like
Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and PeeWee Reese (Lucas Black), and his courage in refusing to
fight back when attacked, and attacked viciously. The attacks are
epitomized by the epithets thrown at him by Philadelphia Phillies'
manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in a good performance). What goes on
in this movie isn't something out of a writer's imagination. These
things actually happened and what Chapman yelled at him was probably a
lot worse than what's shown on the screen.
I’m probably one of the few film critics who actually saw Jackie
Robinson play baseball. I’m sure I’m the only film critic who knows as
much about Jackie Robinson as I do. In fact, I used the interview shown
in the film between Jackie and Branch Rickey as a classic example of how
to use silence in an interview in my award-winning groundbreaking 1978 book
Sweaty Palms: the Neglected Art of Being Interviewed
to read what really happened in the interview).
I can’t say enough good things about this moving film. Baseball has not
been well treated by Hollywood, but Hollywood gets it right here.
Brilliantly written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who received the
approval of Rachel Robinson (exceptionally well played by Nicole Beharie),
Jackie's widow, the baseball scenes
are right on. The CGI re-creations of the classic baseball fields, Ebbets Field, The Polo Grounds, and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, are
But better than that is the acting. Chadwick Boseman looks like Jackie,
and, while not as bulky as Jackie (who starred in football, basketball,
and track in addition to baseball at UCLA), radiates athleticism.
Harrison Ford gives an award quality performance as Branch Rickey, the
crusty general manager who made the earthshaking decision to break the color
line and picked the right man to do it. Helgeland's script strikes the
right chords in showing Robinson's heroism but doing it by showing that
he was at heart just a man who was trying to earn a living who was put
in a historical situation and rose to the occasion better than anyone
could have hoped.
What makes what Robinson
did even more remarkable is that despite all the pressure he was under
unrelated to baseball, he still performed well enough on the field to be
named Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the National League's Most Valuable
Player in 1949!
There are a few factual problems, but nothing earthshaking. One thing
that bothered me was that when sportscaster Red Barber (John C. McGinley
in the poorest performance in the movie) is discussing the Dodgers'
prospects for 1947, he states that the Dodgers "finished two games behind
in 1946 and hope to do better." This is highly misleading. In fact, the
Dodgers and Cardinals tied for the pennant in 1946 and played a best two
out of three game playoff. The Cardinals won the first two games so,
technically, Barber was right, but the implication was that the Dodgers
barely missed winning the pennant by two games when in fact they
actually tied for the pennant. Maybe this was a little too complicated
for Helgeland to get in the movie, but he didn’t have to have Red Barber
make a statement that he clearly never made. If Barber ever referred to
1946 at the beginning of 1947 he would undoubtedly have said that the
Dodgers tied for the pennant and lost in a playoff.
As a last tag and nothing to do with the movie, however, I do want to
comment on the Dodgers. While the team basks in the glory of how it gave
Robinson the chance to break the color line, in 1950 Branch Rickey was
forced out of management by a shrewd lawyer, Walter O’Malley (although
Rickey did manage to get over a million dollars for his interest). Six
years later the Dodgers ignored the contributions Jackie made
to baseball but to American society as a whole by trading Jackie to the
Dodgers’ hated crosstown rivals, the New York Giants for a journeyman
pitcher, Dick Littlefield. The trade, which was shockingly disrespectful
of Robinson and what he went through, was engineered by O’Malley over the
objections of his General Manager, Buzzie Bavasi. Robinson retired a
month later and the trade was voided. Jackie later described O’Malley as
Jackie Robinson was a gentleman. In 1950 UCLA’s basketball team played
in Madison Square Garden against CCNY, who became the only team to win
both the NCAA and the NIT tournaments in the same year. Even so, UCLA
Jerry Norman, who was the starting guard for UCLA, told me that as they were walking off the court after the game, a New York Times
photographer asked Jerry and three other players to pose for a picture
with a black man who was dressed in a suit and tie. It was Jackie
Robinson. Jackie had traveled all the way from Brooklyn to see his old
team play and he dressed up for it and he did it without contacting
anyone at UCLA to tell them he would be there. For me, that speaks
volumes about his character and the high quality person he was.
I could go on and on about this movie and about Jackie Robinson, but
that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that this movie should get an
Oscar nomination and so should Boseman, Ford, and Helgeland, at least.
Bravo to Warner Bros. for making such a fine movie, one that will
interest fans and non-fans alike, about an American