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42
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42 (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was wrong about “42.”

I thought Chadwick Boseman was too soft to play Jackie but he often exudes Jackie’s frowning intensity and competitive spirit. When I saw Christopher Meloni playing Leo Durocher I assumed they were going to ignore Durocher getting banned for the ’47 season. Nope, that’s in there. They mention, in a prologue for people who don’t know U.S. history, that World War II ended in 1945 and great ballplayers like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial returned to the game, leading me to think, “Wait, Stan Musial wasn’t drafted.” He was. Barely. He served from January 1945 to March 1946. Finally, when racist fans start digging at Jackie, I thought it all sounded a bit tepid considering everything the real Jackie went through. I assumed in our PC times they were sugarcoating this bit of history and keeping the racial epithets to a minimum. Instead, they were saving it all for Ben Chapman.

I was also right about “42.” It looked OK and it is OK. Given its source material, it had a chance for greatness.

Whites only

Am I the wrong audience for this movie? I know too much about the subject and nitpick. I’m also the right audience: I’m excited just to see someone playing Clyde Sukeforth onscreen.

I almost predicted it. In April 2007, I wrote the following in a piece about baseball movies for MSNBC.com:

Great baseball biopics are waiting to be made if studio execs only get off the schneid. You’re telling me you can’t make an interesting movie out of the life of Satchel Paige or Hank Greenberg or Roberto Clemente? Why not ignore the career for the season? Give us Jackie Robinson from the time he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1945, through the ’46 season with the Montreal Royals, and end the film on April 15, 1947, the day he broke the color barrier. Talk about extraordinary pressure! There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland nearly follows my parameters. He takes us from just before Jackie signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers to the end of the ’47 season. In some ways that’s smarter. In another way, a big way, it’s not. And they don’t fix that other way.

What’s the drama? In most baseball movies it’s about winning. In this baseball movie, it’s about overcoming centuries of prejudice in order to have the chance to win. No one, after all, goes to “42” to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers win the ’47 pennant. Spoiler alert.

We get spring training in Florida in ’46 and a few of the problems there. Apparently there were WHITES ONLY signs. Jackie has to stay with a black family in town rather than with the team. He has to deal with the press, including Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier (Andre Holland), who traveled and roomed with Jackie in ’46 and ’47.

Does he have doubts? Is he worried he might fail? Who knows? Do we get resentment from other Negro League ballplayers that this rookie, this upstart, this guy who wasn’t even among their best, gets to break the color barrier? There’s an early scene with Dodgers president and part-owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), his assistant Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight), and head scout Clyde Sukeforth (Toby Huss), in which they go over the options. Roy Campanella? Too nice. Satchel Paige? Too old. Jackie Robinson? Just right. It’s a Goldilocks moment.

When Rickey makes his intentions known, he also extracts a promise from Jackie to control his temper, which was imperial, and not fight back for three years. “Your enemy will be out in force and you can’t meet him on his own low ground,” Rickey says, in one of the movie’s many good lines.

But in Florida he’s an isolated man. He wears no. 9 for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team, and does what he does: hits, runs, fields, distracts on the basepaths. He gets in the heads of pitchers. His manager Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen), from Porterville, Mississippi, is delighted. But when Rickey calls Robinson “superhuman,” Hopper tells him not to get carried away. “He’s still a nigger out there,” he says. This leads to chastisement and threat of dismissal and Hopper comes around, as he did in real life, but the scene smells slightly of B.S. And isn’t Rickey’s comment dangerously close to the other side of the racist spectrum? You can’t integrate because blacks are inferior: lazy, shuffling, lacking in mental toughness. No, you can’t integrate because blacks are superior: Their physiques are geared toward athletics. They’re superhuman.

Old white men show up in Sanford, Fla., to shout racist epithets, and a cop interrupts the action because Sanford doesn’t allow integration on the ballfield. He, a cop, actually kicks Jackie out of the game. Afterwards, a redneck-looking guy walks up to Jackie and tells him he’s rooting for him. More bullshit? Maybe it happened. But it feels like it’s in there to soothe Southern white audiences. There were good whites, too.

Whither the ’46 season with the Royals? It’s passed over quickly. We see Jackie hit a homerun in his first game, but please read “Baseball’s Great Experiment” by Jules Tygiel. In five at-bats, with the pressure of the world on him, this is what Jackie did: 1) grounder to short; 2) homerun; 3) bunt single, stolen base, bluff to third, and balk home; 4) single and stolen base; 5) bunt single and another balk home. He went 4-5, with four runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montreal win. Wow. Helgeland actually puts our attention off the field, where Jackie’s wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie of “Shame”), sitting in the stands, suddenly feels sick and has to excuse herself. In the bathroom, a lady in a nice hat suggests the obvious: pregnant? Cue title graphic: “Eight months later…”

So no Montreal Royals championship. No fans chasing Jackie down the street. No line from Sam Maltin of The Pittsburgh Courier: “It was the first time that a white mob chased a black man down the street, not out of hate, but because of love.”

Jackie Robinson and the press
Jackie, surrounded

Undramatic license

For spring training 1947, Rickey and the Dodgers eschew Florida for Havana, Cuba, to get away from the small minds in small towns, but a few of the Dodgers begin to chafe. A petition goes around, led by Kirby Higbe and Dixie Walker (Brad Beyer and Ryan Merriman), saying they refuse to play with Robinson. Others, notably Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black, who deserves a bigger role one of these days), refuse to sign. It’s all pretty clean stuff. This brand of American racism should be like bugs crawling beneath a wet rock but Helgeland divides everyone into three neat groups: 1) the loudmouth racists; 2) the guys who say “Give him a chance”; 3) the people who come around to this second point-of-view.

Durocher puts a stop to the petition (“You can wipe your ass with it!”) but then baseball commissioner Happy Chandler (Peter Mackenzie), here seen getting a manicure at his desk, puts a stop to Durocher by banning him for the season for an extramarital affair. It’s an odd cameo for Chandler, without whom, it can be argued, none of this would have happened. (The previous commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, supposedly helped maintain the color line.)

The big day, April 15, 1947, arrives. Hey, there’s Ebbets Field! Hey, there’s Jackie going into the locker room. He doesn’t have a locker yet but he’s got a uniform and a number on it, 42, and off he goes, through the tunnel and onto the field, where the press surrounds him, and where some fans boo and others cheer. The national anthem is sung in its entirety. We get his first at-bat, a sharper grounder to third, which the third baseman stabs and turns into a nice play, aided, it’s suggested, by a questionable call from the racist ump. True? Was Jackie’s first hit taken away from him? Here’s Jonathan Eig in his book “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season”:

Elliott grabbed it and tossed to first for the easy out.

I know: dramatic license. But Helgeland keeps taking dramatic license in ways that are decidedly undramatic. He takes undramatic license. He’s nonconfrontative about the greatest confrontation in baseball history.

Later in the movie, for example, we get a good scene in which Pee Wee Reese visits Branch Rickey’s office—which, in this movie, the Dodger players seem to visit as often as they take showers. The team is about to travel to Crosley Field for a series against the Reds, and Reese, a Kentuckian, has received a hate letter. He’s called a nigger-lover and a carpetbagger, and he’s wondering what to do about it. Rickey smiles. He explains the Greek origins of the word “sympathy.” Then he goes to a file cabinet and removes several thick file folders full of hate letters—all addressed to Jackie Robinson. We’re going to kill you, Nigger. We’re going to kill your son. We’re going to kill your wife. Reese takes in the enormity of it all, and, of course, it leads to the famous incident, perhaps apocryphal, in which, at Crosley, Reese puts his arm around Jackie to quiet the racists.

It’s a good scene. At the same time, one wonders if the hate mail, and the various threats on Jackie’s life, couldn’t have been used to better dramatic advantage. When Jackie walked onto the field, he was risking his life. Every day. The other players knew this. Everyone knew it. According to Eig, when Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater in the movie) stood next to Jackie on Opening Day, his brother chastised him. “What if some sharpshooter missed him by three feet and got you instead?” he asked. Tension was high. But we don’t feel much of that tension in “42.”

Until the Chapman scene.

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in 42
The famous Reese/Robinson scene. Apocryphal?

Alabama lullaby

Ben Chapman, Alabama born and bred, was a four-time All-Star who led the league in stolen bases four times in the 1930s and retired in 1946 with a .302 batting average and a .823 OPS. He was also baseball’s most infamous race baiter. And his most infamous incident occurred in April 1947 when the Philadelphia Phillies, and its new manager, Chapman, traveled to Brooklyn to meet the Dodgers.

Here’s David Falkner in his book “Great Time Coming”:

From the moment Robinson set foot on the field, Chapman, joined by a number of players, directed an almost unprintable barrage of verbal abuse at him that continued for the rest of the series …

The movie details this abuse. It sets Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in a great performance) on the playing field, where he shouts the following:

  • Hey nigger! Why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?
  • Which one of these white boys’ wives you dating tonight?
  • We don’t want you here, nigger!
  • Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger!

It’s unrelenting. The tension is thick. You’re waiting for something to explode.

In reality this continued for the entire series, with Phillies players leveling their bats like machine guns at Jackie and rat-a-tat-tatting. Finally, in the third game, Eddie Stanky, the Dodgers’ second baseman, returned volley. He called them all cowards. “Why don’t you pick on somebody who can answer back!” he shouted.

“It was then that I began to feel better,” Jackie says in his book, “I Never Had It Made.” “I remembered Mr. Rickey’s prediction. If I won the respect of the team and got them solidly behind me, there would be no question about the success of the experiment.”

Helgeland condenses this, as he should, into one game, the first game, which the Dodgers won 1-0. The lone run comes in the bottom of the 8th when Jackie leads off with a single, steals second and goes to third on the errant throw, then scores easily on a one-out single. That shuts up Chapman. In the movie. In reality, he kept on. Racism keeps on. That’s what it does.

Worse, Helgeland cuts the tension by having Jackie leave the field after his second at-bat to rage and fume and break his bat in the tunnel to the locker room. “I have to admit that this day, of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been,” Jackie wrote, and that’s what Helgeland is trying to dramatize. Except, again, he undramatizes it. With Jackie slouched against a wall, Branch Rickey shows up like a deus ex machina and gives him another pep talk. He brings up the way Jesus was tested: 40 days in the wilderness, etc. He metaphorically pulls Jackie up, dusts him off, and sets him out into the world again. And only then do we get Eddie Stanky coming to Jackie’s defense. Not by shouting back but by walking over to the Phillies dugout and getting in Chapman’s face.

But it’s still a powerful scene. So powerful even Brian Helgeland couldn’t undramatize it.

Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman in 42
Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman: unrelenting

Falling in love with a team in defeat

But back to my original question. What do you do about the ’47 season? The Brooklyn Dodgers, against all odds, won the NL pennant. That’s good. In the World Series, though, they faced the New York Yankees, who screwed up our story by winning in seven games. So how do you end the movie?

I had similar thoughts while watching “Moneyball.” I knew Billy Beane’s grand sabermetric experiment resulted in no pennant or World Series for the 2002 A’s. But writer-director Bennett Miller makes not-winning the point. He gives us the Jeremy Brown footage: “He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it.” He gives us the job offer from the Red Sox. He gives us Beane’s moment of indecision, and his daughter singing for him on CD:

I can’t figure it out
It’s bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go
And just enjoy the show

Miller gives us something difficult and beautiful to carry with us from the theater. He knows the truth in the Roger Kahn line: “You may glory in team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” That line, of course, was written about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Helgeland doesn’t do this. He tries to end on a moment of false glory: a homerun Jackie hit in late September against a Pirates pitcher, Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand), who had beaned him earlier in the season, and which sends the Dodgers into the World Series. Cue celebrations in Brooklyn as Rachel Robinson walks with baby carriage. Cue Jackie, in slow motion, rounding third. Cue uplifting music. But it feels like bullshit even as we watch it. And it is. They try to pass it off as a walkoff homerun when it was a homerun in the top of the 4th. Did this game lead to the pennant? I don’t know. Did Ostermueller really bean Jackie earlier in the season? He did, but with a rising fastball that hit Jackie’s arm, not his head. But it rallied the Dodgers around him. Which it does in the movie. Kind of. Sort of. In Helgeland’s undramatic way.

“42” gets some things right. But Jackie, as a person, is more complex, and more competitive, than his portrayal here. His story is also more important. It’s not about retiring No. 42 in 1997. That’s a bullshit honor anyway. No, his story is important because it’s a prelude to the civil rights movement. It’s almost a blueprint. You turn the other cheek, you act nonviolent in the face of violence, you gain the sympathy of the world. Ben Chapman is Bull Connor, and the rest of us, or the best of us, are Eddie Stanky, fed up, and finally shouting from the dugout.

Maybe next time.

Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier: April 15, 1947

—April 14, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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