If you're going to see “42,” you might want first to read the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Of all the professional sports, baseball is the most hallowed. From Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” to Lou Gehrig’s dramatic farewell speech, baseball – to many of its fans, at least – isn’t just a game played by men. It’s a whole mythical spectacle played out not on a field, not on a court, a rink or even a pitch – but on a diamond set, of all places, in a park.
Not that baseball hasn’t demonstrated its dark sides. Ty Cobbs’ spikes, for example. The Black Sox scandal. Pete Rose’s gambling. The steroids era. Yet as bad as all that is, none of it compares to baseball’s race question – and how that question affected the man known as Jackie Robinson.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the man who, when he donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform on April 15, 1947, became the first African-American to play major league baseball. For the record, that’s almost 80 years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings fielded what is considered the first professional team.
If you go and see writer-director Brian Helgeland’s movies “42,” you’ll get a version of Robinson’s story. You’ll see how Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decides – for reasons that were mixed and not merely noble – to bring a black man to the major leagues. Not just any man, however. But the one with enough talent to dazzle the crowds, and with enough self-control to control his reactions to the humiliating harassment that was bound to come.
As come it did. From the crowds, both in the south when the Dodgers did their spring training in Florida, and from the north when the team played in such cities as Philadelphia, Cincinnati and St. Louis. From not just the opposing players but some of Robinson’s own Dodger teammates, a number of whom signed a petition saying they would not play with Robinson.
To Helgeland’s credit, he doesn’t dodge the worst of this. One grating sequence features the Philadelphia manager, Ben Chapman, saying unbelievably insulting things to Robinson every time he comes to the plate. At the same time, Helgeland felt obligated to invent a scene in which Robinson reacts to Chapman’s provocations by smashing a bat in a stadium tunnel – and is, almost immediately, consoled by owner Rickey. Never happened.
Helgeland can be forgiven both for this and for the movie’s overall tone of reverence. This is a baseball movie, after all, and gritty realism typically gets called out when sliding into the second base of sports mythology. Which is likely why the movie “42” covers only two years of Robinson’s life. Helgeland goes on to mention how Robinson played for 10 years, saw the Dodgers win several National League pennants and the 1955 World Series title.
But he doesn’t deal with the afterword. How Robinson ultimately became a spokesman against racial inequality, for a number of years chairing the NAACP. How for a time he affiliated himself with the Republican party. How he endured the death of his son, Jackie Jr., dead at age 24 in a car accident. How his health declined and his athlete’s body, debilitated by diabetes, gave out in 1972 when he was just 53 years old.
Addressing reality of that kind calls for a whole other kind of reverence that Hollywood just doesn’t equate with movies about baseball.