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.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Sports Columns
  • Courrier: There are no winners in MSU football saga Where to start? In 28 years in the business, there has never been a more odd, twisted, rollercoaster story than the Todd Hoffner saga. And that was before he came back to the Minnesota State campus this week, when strange became tragic and the chance

    April 17, 2014

  • Thoma column: Twins are scoring lot of runs; can this continue? The Minnesota Twins entered Sunday's play with the American League's second-highest number of runs scored. And, they haven't had the advantage of hitting off their own pitching staff. OK, it's dreadfully early in the season, far too early to draw co

    April 14, 2014

  • Courrier: Masters is first sign that winter has been conquered Don't know if anybody noticed but it's been a tough winter, with brutal cold and piles of snow that are now just disappearing. If not for an exciting season of local basketball and hockey, it would have an unbearable four months. Minnesota State had

    April 10, 2014

  • Thoma column: We all know the Ryan Braun saga: Winner of the National League MVP award, flunked a drug test, convinced the arbitrator to toss his suspension on the basis that his sample was mishandled, was snagged anyway in the Biogenesis investigation, suspended

    April 7, 2014

  • Focus will be on Mavericks' QBs this spring The Minnesota State football team began its spring practice period this week, 14 workouts in 27 days, trying to see who has been working hard to maintain a starting position and which backups might be ready to get more playing time in the fall. The b

    April 4, 2014

  • Thoma column: For the remade Twins, 2014 looks like more losing The start of the baseball season is supposed to be about fresh beginnings, wide open promises and the hope that springs eternal in the human breast. I'm here to quash that kind of optimism among the followers of the Minnesota Twins. (I strive to be a

    April 1, 2014

  • Shot clock isn't answer for high-school basketball A few weeks back, the state's basketball fans were all riled up that during a state-tournament game, the Hopkins boys spent much of the four overtimes holding the basketball, preferring not to shoot until the final seconds of each extra period in the

    March 28, 2014

  • Thoma column: Projected lineup is Mauer, Arcia and a bunch of outs The Minnesota Twins begin play in earnest in less than a week -- weather permitting -- and wow, do they have lineup issues. They scored 614 runs last season, 13th in the 15-team American League and almost 100 under the league average (702). Justin Mo

    March 26, 2014

  • Thoma column: Perkins extension may not be such a relief over time In the abstract, long-term contracts for relief pitchers are bad bets for teams. Nobody seems to be too concerned about that rule of thumb when it comes to Glen Perkins' new deal with the Twins. The contract, worth more than $21 million in guaranteed

    March 17, 2014

  • Courrier: No. 1 seed has brought no guarantees for MSU Since the Minnesota State men's basketball team started this nearly annual tradition of playing in the NCAA II tournament, the home team has almost been unbeatable in the regional. The Mavericks have played in nine of the last 10 national tournaments

    March 14, 2014

Free Press news updates
Seasonal Content
Featured Ads
AP Video
Poll