Jackie Robinson’s pioneering, epic life as Major League Baseball’s first black player of the 20th century contained as much cinematic potential as any athlete’s story ever.
Death threats. Beanballs at his skull. Opposing players intentionally spiking him. (Baseball players, it should be noted, wear metal spikes.) Virulent, relentless racist insults shouted his way. Teammates drawing up a petition to get rid of him.
Yet, in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he was directed not to respond, to maintain an almost Gandhi-like commitment not to fight back.
Now, 66 years after he broke the color barrier, a new film tells his story. The title is the uniform number he wore — “42.”
“You can’t imagine a more heroic character,” “42” director Brian Helgeland said.
The movie opens locally April 12.
Chadwick Boseman, perhaps best known for TV roles on “Persons Unknown” and “Lincoln Heights,” plays Robinson.
Helgeland said Boseman’s audition for the role helped secure the chance to play an American hero.
“He was very brave with his choices,” Helgeland said of Boseman’s audition. “He just went for it.”
Boseman, who has attended the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford, had to display an actor’s bravery.
“Not Robinson’s kind of bravery,” Helgeland said.
Robinson’s bravery and challenges are detailed in the movie. How Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman screamed vile comments his way during a game. How a player intentionally stepped on the back of Robinson’s leg. How stacks of hate mail and death threats flowed into the team’s Ebbets Field offices.
Robinson broke into the majors seven years before landmark civil rights events such as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Robinson’s impact went beyond his batting average, something Hegleland said Boseman knows.
“He understood the scope of the part,” Helgeland said.
Before Robinson had a chance to play, somebody had to give him a chance. That someone was Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Screen icon Harrison Ford plays the eloquent and pious Rickey, who wasn’t anybody’s idea of a matinee idol.
“I wasn’t crazy about the idea at first,” Helgeland said of Ford as Rickey. “When I first heard of it I thought I needed a character actor, not a movie star.”
Instead, he got one of the biggest movie stars of all.
“I didn’t think he could pull it off,” Helgeland said.
But Ford, the man who played swashbuckling heroes such as Indiana Jones and Han Solo, became the moralistic Methodist baseball executive.
“He said he wanted Harrison Ford to disappear,” Hegleland said of Ford’s approach to the role.
Now, the movie will help Robinson’s memory remain alive, 41 years after his death at age 53 in 1972.
In Jules Tygiel’s 1984 book, “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson And His Legacy,” the author described what makes the story so compelling.
“It is a tale of courage, heroics, and triumphs,” Tygiel wrote. “Epic in its proportions. The emotional impact of Robinson’s challenges requires no elaboration or enhancement. Few works of fiction could impart its power.”
The nation’s racial issues in the 1940s could be wrapped up in discussions about fairness. The theoretical concept of racial equality, Helglend indicated, dissolved as fans watched No. 42.
“You were either for or against the man,” Helgeland said.
Now, 57 years since his final game in 1956, new generations of players and fans are learning more about Robinson.
Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau attended a recent screening of the movie in Fort Myers. Morneau said he has read books about Robinson and knows about his life.
“You’re never going to know the scope of someone’s life or what they went through by reading a book or watching a movie,” Morneau said. “But I think (‘42’) opens people’s eyes to the story, that people appreciate what he went through and what he was able to do.”
Robinson visits SWFL
Jackie Robinson first played in a Florida spring training game in 1946, but his only visit to Southwest Florida didn’t come until 1956.
What took so long?
Well, there was no sinister plot to keep him out of Fort Myers. When Robinson first joined the Brooklyn Dodgers organization as a minor league player in 1946, no professional teams trained here.
That was the case for most of his career. In 1955, the Pittsburgh Pirates began training at Terry Park in Fort Myers.
The Dodgers scheduled a game there in 1955, but Robinson did not make the cross-state trip from Brooklyn’s Vero Beach training camp.
The largest crowd of 1955 Fort Myers spring training, about 3,000 fans, filled the park hoping to see the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. The “colored” seating area was packed with fans.
Local fans would have to wait another year to see Robinson. On March 28, 1956, in the final year of his career, the 37-year-old Robinson made the trip with the defending World Series champion Dodgers.
Robinson played second base and was 0-for-2 in Pittsburgh’s 5-2 victory.