More Than Just a Number in a Box Score
At the end of this year, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera will hang up his cleats and retire as the game’s best closer. He will also retire the “42” on his back, the last current Major League baseball player to still wear Jackie Robinson’s number after it was retired throughout all of baseball back in 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s first professional game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Forever immortalized in the landscape of sports, Robinson’s status as a baseball legend reaches far beyond his play between the white lines, breaking a color barrier in a game rooted in unwritten rules and codes. Now nearly seventy years after his fateful walk to the batter’s box, Robinson is recognized each year on April 15th, his number stitched on every player’s jersey.
42, directed by Brian Helgeland, does not capture the far-reaching effects and totality of Robinson’s career, neither his time in UCLA nor the majority of his successful stint with the Dodgers. Instead it dwells within his two-year height of adversity, the front lines of racial intolerance and the man who led the charge into breaking the color barrier. Bookended by archival footage of civil rights struggles and facts about Jackie’s life, the film begins in 1945 when young Robinson, performed earnestly by Chadwick Boseman, is playing in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. The twiddling fingers, the hopping off first base, and the climactic feet first safe slide into second are documented here. We first meet Jackie as a baseball player before he realizes he’s playing for much more.
The proceeding play he steals home and it’s clear he’s bound for greater things. That’s where Branch Rickey (A phenomenal Harrison Ford) steps in and decides Jackie will be the first player he will attempt to integrate into the Brooklyn Dodger organization. Jackie tries out and makes the Dodger triple-A team in Montreal amid spring training Floridians and teammates unwilling to accept a black man in their sacred sport. Rickey knows the hardships will follow and makes it clear that Robinson must have the guts “not” to fight back. He even makes sure a black reporter, Wendell Smith, who typewrites from the bleachers, looks out for Jackie in precarious situations. When he’s called up to Brooklyn another prejudiced storm awaits him.
Besides the bigoted fans, his teammates don’t take kindly to his presence, even forming a petition not to play with him on the team. Rickey calls manager Leo Durocher (an underused Christopher Meloni)-- he’s always on the phone in the film—and tells him to knock sense into the team. “More are coming,” Durocher tells his team referring to African American players. “Jackie’s just the first.” Branch Rickey knew the burden he had in bringing in Robinson, but he also knew he had to be the right baseball player. Anyone less than a humble star would have inflicted a mutiny. Winning was the ticket. Winning changes everything. Winning helped an intolerant team see Robinson as more than a black man. Winning gave hope and cause for an African American population to see Robinson as a hero.
Every hit, every slide, every shoulder shrug, every knowing glare towards an unjust umpire built his confidence in an era where helmets weren’t instituted and getting hit in the head was a strong likelihood. Jackie’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) plays his emotional rock, present at every home game suffering along with every fan’s jab, triumphing with every hit. Helgeland has experience in directing these stories, the height of which came most notably in “A Knight’s Tale,” in which a peasant played by Heath Ledger unlawfully enters a jousting competition, a sport of nobility. Historical anachronisms aside, he conjured the same kinds of highly emotional fraternal relationships seen in 42. Robinson gave his teammates a chance to display their changed racial attitudes to their intolerant friends during their numerous road trips. Before a game in Cincinnati, Pee-Wee Reese races across the field and puts his arm around Jackie for the whole world to see.
Branch Rickey was a rare man able to see an inevitable future taking shape while still desiring America’s pastime to be played with the same integrity. Harrison Ford is perfect for this role and congeals nicely into a character that constantly lights a stogie and recites religious rhetoric like “God’s a Methodist.” You forget that this man, with his slow tongue and gait, played Indiana Jones, but quickly remember again when he lights up his big smile, specifically as he hears Red Barber’s (John C. MicGinley) voice over an empty Ebbets Field, pronouncing Robinson’s pennant-winning performance in Pittsburgh.
This is ultimately a baseball movie, which means certain facets of the game must be shown, namely home runs being cracked with regularity, clunky broadcasting quips, and CGI baseballs to match a CGI stadium re-creation. That doesn’t necessarily mean some of those moments aren’t potent, but they’re noticeable, isolated staples of the game and films about the game. There is something for everyone, specifically the younger generation, which is the ultimate mission for a biopic like this. But that means it also leaves out scrupulous detail, which for stat heavy baseball nerds is a criminal offense.
But baseball films rarely ever capture the perfect nature of baseball, a sport predicated upon imperfection. Robinson rarely is shown to struggle in his at-bats except for one crucial game against the Phillies in which Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) tosses just about every racial epithet into Jackie’s ear in the batter’s box. Boseman’s personality is rather tame as Robinson, but his one moment of rage comes after Chapman’s insults.
Robinson sprints into the dugout tunnel, and, away from his teammates, saws a bat in two against the concrete wall. He thinks no one is watching, but then Rickey appears from the shadows, ready to embrace a belittled man. “Why did you do this?” Jackie asks him later, to which Rickey responds, “I want to see baseball played at its best.” It’s fair to say Robinson fulfilled his wish in multiple ways.