There’s something in the way Jackie Robinson holds a baseball bat.
He treats it with nonchalance; it’s almost an accessory to carry while wearing a baseball uniform. But when Robinson stands at home plate, holding this same bat, he slugs the ball with a sharp crack! that happens so quickly you can hardly believe he actually hit the ball.
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) examines the life and early career of the famed Number 42, the first African-American to play in the major leagues. The story was later retold in the 2013 film 42, starring Chadwick Boseman. While the 1950 film has a more modest budget than the 2013 version, it has one huge advantage: It stars Jackie Robinson as himself.
Now, Robinson is not what you’d call a classically-trained actor, but who cares! We get to see Jackie Robinson play baseball!
The Jackie Robinson Story is like being at a ball game, with all the sounds of a game: the whack of the ball against the bat; the roar of the crowd; the chatter in the dugout. This film was made by folks who love baseball, and they’ve not skimped on footage of Robinson hitting and stealing bases.
But the film isn’t just about the game of baseball. It’s about the concept of baseball – who the game is for and who should be allowed to play.
In 1947, Robinson is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for their farm team in Montreal. He is the first African-American ball player in the major leagues.
Sports reporters are waiting when Robinson steps out onto the Montreal field for the first time. They ask if he thinks there’s going to be trouble. “The only trouble I’m worried about is a ground ball to my right,” he quips.
The reporters are not asking about ground balls and Robinson knows it. He’s reminding them he has the right to play baseball.
In the scene where Robinson is initially signed by the Dodgers, the owner (Minor Watson) sits at his desk and lights a cigar as he carefully studies Robinson. For a moment, we are uncertain of Watson’s motives: does he sincerely want to hire Robinson, or is he going to humiliate him? But as Watson pointedly stares Robinson, we realize he’s analyzing the athlete, not the colour of his skin.
“We’re tackling something big here, Jackie,” Watson says. “If we fail, no one will try again for 20 years.” He tells Robinson that the going will be rough; fans will throw insults at him, and opposing players will run at him spikes first. Watson a ballplayer is needed who has guts enough not to fight back.
Robinson is that player, and he takes everything on the chin. He’s booed when he steps up to the plate. Fans shout obscenities at him and pitchers aim for his head instead of the strike zone. Yet, Robinson sells tickets. Love him or hate him, everyone wants to see him play.
The Jackie Robinson Story is a movie about breaking the colour barrier and a remarkable pioneer major league player. But it’s also a love letter to a game made better by Robinson.
The Jackie Robinson Story: starring Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Minor Watson. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Lawrence Taylor and Arthur Mann, Samson Raphaelson. Jewel Pictures Corp., 1950, B&W, 77 mins.
This post is part of the Big League Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Films. Be sure to read all the contributions celebrating the great game of Baseball.