(2013) "Maybe tomorrow, we'll all wear 42, so nobody could tell us apart," says Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) to his black teammate. On the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's crossing the color line in 1947, and thereby integrating big-league baseball, every player on a Major League Baseball team dons a jersey with Robinson's No 42 on April 15 to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. As directed by Commissioner Bud Selig in 1997, Robinson's No 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball (with one exception, Mariano Rivera on the New York Yankees, who says he'll retire after this season) in an unprecedented tribute.
In 1945 when Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers ballclub, announces to his scouting assistants Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight) and Clyde Sukeforth (Toby Huss) his intention to bring a Negro player into the National League, they urge him to reconsider breaking a social code in effect for over 50 years. The only color that matters to him, Rickey says,, concealing his moral perception, is green, the color of money, which he expects to make by attracting colored fans to Ebbets Field.
After considering some aging stars in the Negro League - Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson - and dismissing Roy Campanella (too sweet to handle the anticipated controversy), Rickey settles on Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs, because as a multi-sport athlete at UCLA he'd played with and against whites. Calling Robinson in for a meeting, Rickey asks if the ballplayer can control his temper and like the Savior "turn the other cheek."
As an officer in the US Army during World War II, Robinson had been court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Under contract to hit the ball with a bat but under constraint not to strike out at anyone regardless of provocation (e.g., anyone calling him "nigger"), Jackie becomes the second baseman for the Dodgers' minor league team in the International League in Montreal, wearing number 9.
At the behest of Rickey, sports reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), black and banned from joining white sportswriters in the press box, takes on the task of guiding Jackie through the labyrinth of lonely travails facing the first person to break through the color barrier. (Smith doesn't receive the credit he deserves, along with plenty of others, for his and their efforts to integrate baseball in the decades before Jackie donned a Dodgers uniform.) Proving his worth as a hitter, fielder, and base stealer, he's invited to spring training with the parent club in 1947; but because Pee Wee Reese is the shortstop and Eddie Stankey (Jesse Luken) has the position at second base, Robinson at 28 is given a chance to become the team's first baseman (replacing 22-year-old Ed Stevens), a position he's never previously played.
Sent to Panama for practice and preparation for the season - getting the white players accustomed to being around dark-skinned people - manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) puts down a brewing mutiny among players - led by pitcher Kirby Higby (Brad Beyer), whom Jackie had embarrassed earlier, and catcher Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips) - by quashing their petition against playing with Robinson: "If Robinson can help us win, then he is gonna play on this ball club!"
However, just days before the first game of the regular season, Durocher (given the line he may never have actually uttered, "Nice guys finish last") gets suspended for a year by baseball's commissioner Happy Chandler for adultery. Failing to find a replacement among current skippers of ballclubs, Rickey pleads with retired former Cleveland Indians coach Burt Shotton (Max Gail), who'd promised his wife never again to put on a baseball uniform, to manage the Dodgers.
As harsh and unfair as director/writer Brian Helgeland portrays Jackie Robinson's life from 1945 to '47 in this glorious biopic - cursed with racist slurs from the crowd, opposing players, and especially witheringly on the field by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Ala Tudyk); targeted by beanballs (leading the league in times hit by a pitch); spiked; sent dozens upon dozens of death threats (directed at himself as well as his wife and baby boy); denied hotel and restaurant privileges; expected to shower after all the white players finished - the reality of his ordeal was far grimmer.
While the movie suggests that following 1947, in which Robinson was awarded Rookie of the Year after playing in all but three games, batting .297 with twelve home runs (tied with Reese for best on the team), and leading the National League in stolen bases with 29, he was largely accepted for his enormous talent by the fans and respected by other players, the truth is less appealing and more appalling since Jackie along with other great black players who followed him in the decade he played for the Dodgers - such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson - all suffered multiple humiliations.
Jackie's widow Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie) was a powerful force acting behind the scenes to have this movie made in memory of her husband's legacy. By the way, Kirby Higby, who is shown throwing four balls to Jackie in his first appearance at the plate during a spring-training contest in 1946 and was traded to Pittsburgh early in the 1947 season, led the National League in base-on-balls allowed.
Refusing to play for the New York Giants in 1957 when told he was being traded, Jackie turned to activism outside of baseball, since no one inside baseball offered him a job as manager, coach, or other official position in baseball. Unlike most of the world, he knew the critical difference between perceived and actual equality, which "lay in who sat at the controls," notes Howard Bryant in The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, pointing out that "Robinson received letters on White House stationery from both Vice President Nixon and Frederic Morrow, the first black White House aide, congratulating him and the Dodgers" following the second game of the 1956 World Series against the Yankees.
"His enemies chafed at the unfairness of it all, but virtually all would stand on the wrong side of history, "continues Bryant: "It was history that would vindicate him and the men who sparred with Jackie, who were sick of him, who could least see those transformative qualities, stood alone, sounding little more than bitter. As Robinson's influence as the single most important political figure in baseball history grew all the more obvious as the lifetimes piled up, his enemies began looking horribly small, insignificant signposts disappearing in the rearview mirror."
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