The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

April 7, 2013

Thoma: Two hours not long enough for this story

— Here’s the big question I have about “42,” the Jackie Robinson movie coming out later this week:

Is it possible to do justice to such a complex story as the breaking of the color barrier in so little time?

My guess is not. “42” is bound to be incomplete, just a skimming of the surface. It may prove a vital entry point for people to delve deeper into the subject, but it can't be much more than that.

The movie's running time is listed at 2 hours, 8 minutes. Robinson’s famous interview with Branch Rickey — in which the aging owner/executive judged Robinson’s fitness for the pending ordeal, read aloud from works of philosophy about the virtues of nonviolent resistance and explicitly described what lay ahead for the player if he accepted the challenge — lasted longer that that.

Rickey is one of the most fascinating characters in baseball history. Personally a profoundly conservative man, he was truly revolutionary in his thinking.

How many times this man changed the game — and how many times he influenced the greater society. He invented the farm system. He standardized instruction and scouting. He played a central role in expansion.

And, of course, he brought Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball.

That simple sentence does not do justice to the complexity and the ramifications of breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Rickey plotted the move years in advance. He knew the limitations of leadership. He could only lead his followers in a direction and to a distance they were willing to go.

The first manager Robinson played for under Rickey — Clay Hopper, Montreal Royals, in 1946 — was a Mississippian who that spring said to Rickey: Do you really think a n----- is a human being?

Rickey knew he couldn’t fire every racist in the Brooklyn organization. He could — and did — put Robinson on Hopper’s roster, but it was up to Robinson to win Hopper over.

Which he did.

Rickey knew there would be players on the Brooklyn team opposed to having a black teammate. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager in spring training — there’s a complexity for Rickey, and for the filmmakers; Durocher was suspended for the year just as the season opened — famously called a middle-of-the-night team meeting in a hotel kitchen to tell the players: I hear there’s a petition to keep Robinson off the club. Well, you can take that petition and wipe your asses with it.

Rickey could put Robinson on the roster; Durocher and Burt Shotton could put him in the lineup. But it was up to Robinson to win his teammates over.

Which he did.

And that probably didn’t come easily. Robinson was a superb athlete (baseball was at best his third-best sport) and an intelligent, educated man. He was also prickly and belligerent, aware of when he was slighted and aware that large portions of white society were eager to slight him. By all accounts, he was not easy to get along with.

Which was the combination Rickey sought. He needed a player who could be a success on the field, certainly. He also needed that player to see the big picture — both the need for restraint in the face of provocation, and the need to see the project through. Robinson was clearly combative enough to stick it out; Rickey's concern had to be restraining that combativeness.

Robinson wasn’t the only black player to go through the caldron of white opposition. He wasn’t even the only one that year, or even the only one on the Dodgers that year.

But Robinson was the first, and thus had the highest profile. He could not afford to fail. Dan Bankhead, a black pitcher who joined the Dodgers later in the 1947 season, did fail. But by then it was obvious that yes, black men could play this game at the highest level.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.

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