By Danny Peary
I’m pleased that 42 is #1 among On-Demand movies.
There’s a lot missing in the telling of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 rookie season, and some needlessly intentional inaccuracies, but Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, Nicole Beharie as the equally gallant bride Rachel (pictured in a still from the film, left) —the best-looking movie couple of the year—and a barely-recognizable but forceful Harrison Ford who nailed down an Oscar nomination as Branch Rickey—were perfectly cast and what is on screen is compelling, enlightening, and often makes the viewer damn mad. It’s heartening that so many people saw the picture in theaters and now are now ordering it on-demand because it’s genuinely about their wanting to learn more about our post-war social history and sports history and about the one baseball player who transcended the game. I first learned about this movie two years ago from Rachel Robinson while standing in front of a poster for the 1950 movie chestnut, The Jackie Robinson Story, at the Jackie Robinson Foundation in Manhattan. I was there to interview her for a biography I was coauthoring with Tom Clavin, also of Sag Harbor, on Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Gil Hodges. Here is an excerpt from that interview with one of my heroes, mostly having to do with 1947.
Danny Peary: After Branch Rickey left the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1950 season, he took over the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates and signed almost no black players. So do you think he signed Jackie so that he could break the color barrier or simply because he thought Jackie would make the team better and boost attendance?
Rachel Robinson (pictured left): We both truly believed he did it for the best reasons, that he didn’t do it for economic reasons but moral ones. We had a lot of trust and respect for him.
DP: Was it flattering to Jackie that Branch Rickey made the effort, during spring trainings, to find facilities in Havana and the Dominican Republic—and to build Dodgertown at Vero Beach–to make it easier for Jackie and future black players on the team?
RR: It was typical of the kind of planning that Branch Rickey did for him to try to find ways of supporting the black players who came in. We always thought his planning was very meticulous. He thought ahead of time. But when the black players got to Cuba in 1947, they were not happy. The four of them [Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Roy Partow] were put up in a Havana hotel and the other players stayed in a better hotel on the island. They felt almost betrayed by that, because they kept them separate. It wasn’t the way they’d hoped. It was better in the Domincan Republic the next year. I didn’t go to either place. In those days, wives were not invited to travel with the team. We were given a chance, maybe once a year, to go on a trip. Otherwise, the players had roommates. I guess it was an economic thing as much as anything else.
DP: In spring training in 1947, when the team was in Panama, Dixie Walker’s petition to not let Jackie put on a Brooklyn uniform was going around the clubhouse. It was being signed by most of the Southerners, but not by Pee Wee Reese from Kentucky, and by a later-repentant Carl Furillo from Pennsylvania, but not by fellow rookies Gil Hodges from Indiana and Duke Snider, from California. Was Jackie trying to figure out who were his friends on the team, and who were not his friends?
RR: In 1947, Jack had so many challenges and a great opportunity, so I don’t recall that he’d begun deciding who was for him and against him. There were other things that were more pressing, and much more important to him, than his teammates. The petition itself was a challenge, but it was a challenge for Rickey, not for Jackie Robinson. You paid attention to some of the more outspoken players, like Dixie Walker, and others who wanted a way to get out of Brooklyn and had to be traded. But I wouldn’t say that at that point Jack was saying, These are my friends and the ones that are going to be good to me, and these are the ones that are going to undermine me. I think given the climate in the world, and the forces that were not in favor of integration, I think what he was looking at was how he could contribute to the team as a player, not so much at his welfare. That was secondary. Because he knew that he was a good player, he knew that he could hold his own on the team, and he wanted to be part of a winning process. He wasn’t looking for people to come pat him on the back, or have a Coca-cola with him. Socializing was not that important to him.
As the years went on, it became more evident and more important who was for and against Jackie, because they were trying to build a winning team. In that process, it was very important to have some unity on the team. He wasn’t looking for friends, he was looking for teammates. Of course he was looking for teammates who were very skilled players, as Gil Hodges was, and who had the team’s interest at heart—and who would do anything they could to create the solidarity that was going to make them a winning team.
DP: Socializing outside the clubhouse, between black players and white players, was just rarely was done in those days.
RR: That’s true. We didn’t get upset that we weren’t part of things. The team would get together for a social event, and we would go, and we’d enjoy that. But we had friends, and we had family, and we had our place in our own community, so it wasn’t essential for us to become friends ands socialize with the other players. It’s like any work situation– you want to get along with everyone and you want to be respected by them but you don’t necessarily need to have them come home with you. There were people who became like friends, we didn’t socialize as much as friends will do, but we knew that we could count on each other in times of stress. Joan and Gil Hodges got together with us for dinner a time or two. It would have been in Brooklyn. I felt close to them as a couple. Jack talked about how he admired and liked Gil. He thought Gil was part of that core group that was always intent on winning as a team, so he was part of the unity. Jackie thought he could trust him and also had confidence in him, both as a player and as someone he related to. There was a warmth to Gil, not in an effusive way, but just being himself. Quiet, but with a smile, or something that’d make you know that he was right there with you. Joan and I sometimes sat together at the games, maybe with Pee Wee’s wife, Dotty Reese and Betty Erskine. I sat with them and talked to them the most.
DP: The person who supported Robinson the most at the time of the player uprising, maybe because he was instructed to by Rickey, was the manager Leo Dorocher. He squashed the petition.
RR: Yes, he did. He stepped right in over the petition.
DP: But in 1948 Jackie and Leo started to have their rift. The story is that Jackie came to camp and was overweight, and Leo was insulting to him, saying “Wear a rubber suit and you’ll lose weight” and all that stuff. Was that the beginning of the rift or was there something else that was going on?
RR: I think the tension between them was that Jack was overweight and Leo thought that meant he wasn’t doing his best in terms of getting ready for the season. I don’t think it started before then.
DP: I read where you said people misunderstood the relationship between Jackie and Rickey. They think of it as being paternalistic, and you think it was more like collaboration. Do you always have to correct this?
RR: Not always, but sometimes I have to reinforce my thought that it was a collaboration. It was the pairing of two men who needed each other to make this work–and who respected each other and trusted each other so that they could make it work. I don’t think Jack thought of it [differently], although he might have said that it was like having a father figure, because Rickey was so intimately and consistently involved. But it was the pairing that was important. They talked sporadically, and it was usually in terms of something that was coming up that they had to plan together. But it was frequent, at certain stages, particularly early on. It wasn’t telephone calls; it was in-person., Rickey didn’t go into the clubhouse, Jack would go to his office. Occasionally, I would be invited to sit in the office and just observe, but not often. I loved to see them together. I appreciated Branch so much. Over the years I began to feel a very strong affection for him because of the way he interacted with Jack, and how they planned together, and talked through the troubles they might be encountering. I had a lot of respect for him.
DP: The story we generally hear is that Rickey told Jackie that there’d be two years that Jackie must turn the other cheek when he experienced racism at the ballpark. Was it two years or one year before he was allowed to fight back?
RR: Jack was never told that it was a two-year trial. I thought the media decided that, or they had heard from Rickey that it might take two years, or something like that. I always felt that they had some objectives that had to be met before Jack could be free to be himself. I thought that Jack determined that as much as Rickey did. So when he felt that he could manage on his own, he was ready to step out. I thought Rickey supported that. I never felt that Rickey said, “Now it’s time for you to be yourself,” or “Next season you can break out and do whatever you want to do.” I never thought it was that way, and this is part of my view of their partnership–they respected each other’s judgment, and Rickey would expect Jack to say, I’m ready now, and the conditions are such that I can be myself and not do any damage to the experiment. Jackie changed by the second year, he was no longer taking anything. You could see that, it was demonstrated on the field. He’d also argue with umpires. I never missed a home game. Jackie would look for me–I would try to communicate with him through the airwaves, mentally. If he was arguing with an umpire, I’d say, Please stop, we can’t afford to lose you. I’d say that as a fan of the Dodgers who wanted the team to win.
DP: Jackie’s incredible career ended after the 1956 season because he was traded to the Giants and rather than play with them, he retired. Tommy Davis told me that during the ’56 season, Jackie was asked by general manager Buzzie Bavasi to call Tommy to help recruit him to come to the Dodgers. For him to have done that for the organization, Jackie must have thought he’d be around for when Davis arrived in camp the next year. So the trade must have been a surprise to you.
RR: Jack had begun to sense that these were his last years. He had more difficulty getting ready for spring training – physically and also not getting excited about doing it and all that. So he knew there wasn’t much time left. Before Buzzie called him to say he was traded, Jack gave a story to Look magazine, stating that it was almost time for him to retire, that kind of thing. What was hard was the notion that they traded him without discussing it with him, or preparing him for it, which was disrespectful given his status and importance and years of service to the team. There was no ceremonial stuff planned to lead up to this. Then, to be traded to the hated Giants was of course another part of the disrespect kind of thing.
DP: Did both of you say, “This disrespect is intentional?”
RR: We thought that not just because they wanted to trade him, but because of the way they went about it. How they did it was disturbing. Buzzie just picked up the phone and said, “You’re traded.”
DP: I’ve always thought there was the possibility that he was traded because, despite being from California, Jackie would have vocally objected to O’Malley’s plan to move the team there in 1958. He was very outspoken.
RR: That they knew he’d object and so they traded him instead? I don’t know, that’s just speculation.
DP: Dave Anderson of the Times thinks Jackie might have been traded because if he went with them to L.A, O’Malley could never fire Walter Alston. If that happened a lot of people would want Robinson to be the new manager. O’Malley didn’t want to be put in that position.
RR: I’ve never heard that.
DP: Was Jackie interested in managing?
RR: He would have been interested had it been discussed, but it was never discussed with him, so he never had the expectation that he would be the manager of the Dodgers. But like any other player who’s done very well and been with a team ten years, you might think it was a possibility. But with Jackie it was never put together as any kind of possibility, so he never expected it, really.
DP: Would he have expected such a thing, to be a pioneer–the first black manager?
RR: If he did feel like that, he didn’t say that to me.
DP: Like a lot of baseball fans, I have a fondness for the 1950 movie bio, The Jackie Robinson Story, even though it had no budget and Jackie wasn’t an actor.
RR: The Jackie Robinson Story was a low-budget film, shot very quickly. I think what attracts people is that Jackie played himself. Ruby Dee played me and we have been friends ever since. I think Jack had fun with it, and enjoyed having some kind of record of his life done on film. I don’t really want to critique it, because back then they really didn’t have the resources to make it into a major production. I hope the day will come that we have a movie about Jackie with proper actors and a good script.