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Hero (Even To A Yankee Fan) February 18, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Baseball, Movies.

Flipping around the dial today brought forth an ESPN Classic airing of The Jackie Robinson Story from 1950, a pretty interesting cultural artifact for a variety of reasons.

First off, Robinson plays himself in the movie and normally this would make me focus on how well he delivers his dialogue and so forth, compared to other athletes who played themselves in movies, whether it’s Babe Ruth in Pride Of The Yankees or Michael Jordan in Space Jam (as opposed to the dreaded “athlete becomes actor” category of Joe Namath’s films or Brian Bosworth’s. Instead, I couldn’t get over the idea that Robinson made this movie a mere 3 years after joining the Dodgers when the immense struggles he went through were still so immediate and so fresh to the culture and to Robinson.

We see a sanitized-for-1950 version of the racist crap Robinson had to stomach in his first year in the majors, while he pains to live up to the promise demanded by Branch Rickey that he not fight back in order to pave the way for future integration of the big leagues. (I’ve always thought that the stress Robinson endured from this took years off his life – despite his other health problems, I can’t see an athlete dead at age 53.) Yet, for a 1950 film coming out of the era of Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire, The Jackie Robinson Story depicts some pretty ugly insults hurled at Robinson and overtones of quasi-Klan members plotting against him from the stands. In some ways, the film is ahead of its time in these segments, where the jeers thrown at Robinson by racist fans, players and coaches play off of accepted stereotypes of African-Americans from the time period and that way the film depicts the people hurling the insults as well as the insults themselves as unjust and worthless. They are also staged to show Robinson’s inner strengths and phenomenal character in his reaction shots.

And at one point, two idiot fans try to taunt him with a black cat. Robinson walks over to them, scaring the bullies as he takes the black cat into the dugout and pets it. If this incident is true and Robinson saved a kitty from a pair of racist douchebags, HE IS THE GREATEST PLAYER EVER!

Wait…. Babe Ruth fed kitties some leftover hot dogs and got them all drunk? I stand corrected!

Anyway, the film depicts Branch Rickey as Robinson’s protector throughout the film. While this is somewhat accurate, the rest of the names of Dodger players have been changed. In the key scene, Rickey scolds some Dodger players for petitioning against Robinson joining the team (it was actually manager Leo Durocher who did this), giving them a speech about how everyone in America deserves opportunity along with the clear message that Robinson will play for the Dodgers but they might not if they keep this nonsense up. Much of the movie presents Robinson’s achievements as a testament to American greatness – perhaps this thinly-veiled anti-commie Cold War aura is what got the racial material by – who knows?

And for some interesting trivia, Ruby Dee plays Robinson’s wife in the film, an early role for her – forty years later, she’d play Robinson’s mother in The Court Martial Of Jackie Robinson, a pretty good TV movie with the great Andre Braugher as Robinson.

And for some TRULY geeky interesting trivia, the dialogue coach who clearly spent a lot of time working with Robinson is none other than future big-time movie producer Ross Hunter, producer of Airport and numerous lush ‘n’ sappy Douglas Sirk soap operas from the 1950s. Hunter started his career as a dialogue coach, and this may be his first film, for all I can tell.

The film is dated in some obvious ways, mostly in the way Robinson is repeatedly referred to as a “boy” even by those who are fighting for him, but in other ways it sneaks in subtle support for integration – towards the end of the film as Robinson is leading the Dodgers to their 1947 pennant (the movie doesn’t depict the World Series… guess who the Dodgers lost to!) one of the quasi-Klan schmoes is repeatedly shown going from heckling Robinson to cheering him on, and when the Dodgers clinch the pennant, shaking hands with the black family sitting in front of him at Ebbets Field.

Thus while the movie gives the message that opportunity will breed success which will in turn break down barriers, I’ve always been enough of a baseball-loving sap to see Robinson as much more than that. Baseball as the American Pastime meant that aspects of the sport reflected various idealized components of American society, one of which was the concept of a meritocracy: whoever can get out onto that field and play well gets to play, and gets to be rooted for. It doesn’t matter who you are as long as you can play. From the point where Cap Anson refused to appear with George Stovey through Robinson’s debut, that idea didn’t apply to baseball because not everyone who could play was allowed to. And while Rube Foster had put together an alternate league that had its own stars and legends, it only illustrated how segregated America deprived everyone of the best we could have – we never got to see how Joe DiMaggio would have hit off Satchell Paige or how many homeruns Josh Gibson would have slugged off Dizzy Dean, and we’ll never know and for baseball fanatics like me who pore over stats all the time, it’s an eternal reminder of just how stupid people can be.

Robinson, by playing well and putting up with more shit than any man should have to, changed all that. Generations later, the majors cull talent from all over the world without regard to race, language, or anything other than being wary of Scott Boras demanding the impossible or a bottle of HGH in somebody’s closet. Robinson therefore opened up the American game and made it truly American, in terms of it symbolizing a real meritocracy. I know baseball can also be called a kid’s game and mere entertainment, but somehow it’s always been something more than that, and I think Robinson’s achievement in transforming the game into what it should have been all along earns him a spot on Mount Rushmore.

Especially if he saved that kitty.



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