Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 18, 2013

MARK MAYNARD: ‘42’ movie must-see viewing

Mark Maynard
The Independent

ASHLAND — Last weekend, like a lot of the country, my wife and I went to the movies to watch “42,” the story about Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player in major league baseball.

The movie was outstanding and it showed some of what Robinson had to endure as the pioneer for so many other black players. It also showed how many of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates looked beyond the color of the skin to the man inside.

Hall of Fame shortstop Peewee Reese of Louisville was one of them, although the scene in the movie where he puts his arm around Robinson in front of a rowdy, racially fueled crowd at Crosley Field didn’t happen — or at least no sportswriters of that time wrote about the incident. That was probably a little bit of Hollywood in action. But Reese’s support of Robinson was well-chronicled in baseball history, making the transition for Robinson a lot easier.

While reflecting on the movie, several things came to mind.

One was the role Branch Rickey, the brash Dodgers general manager whose idea it was to bring Robinson to major league baseball, had on the game. It’s a shame they couldn’t have developed that a little more in the movie, although it’s also understandable since it was about Robinson.

The signing of Robinson was the most memorable act in Rickey’s career. There was an unwritten rule in baseball about not having black players and the policy carried under baseball’s leaders, including commissioner Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, who was openly opposed to integrating major league baseball for what he called “legitimate reasons.”

Landis died in 1944, but it was in the previous year Rickey gained the approval of the Dodgers board of directors in 1943 to begin the search for the right man.

Rickey, who was born in southern Ohio, is on the Portsmouth floodwall mural, and with good reason. He’d be a good movie all by himself. He was played by Harrison Ford in  “42” and, by all accounts, seemed to be a good portrayal of the Brooklyn Dodger general manager. It was hard to believe this was the same guy we grew to love as Indiana Jones. He wore a fat suit and they aged him quite well for the role.

Rickey was an innovator supreme in baseball, maybe of the best ever. Did you know he was the man responsible for developing the minor league system? How about the batting helmet, pitching machines and the batting cage? He was the one responsible for getting the Dodgers the wonderful spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., which today is referred to as Dodgertown.

He also pioneered the use of statistical analysis in baseball. Rickey promoted the idea that on-base percentage was more important than batting average, something today’s sabermetric experts agree with today.

The first batting helmets were put in place when Rickey became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1953 he had the Pirates wear the makeshift helmets at bat and in the field (maybe because he owned stock in the helmet company). The Pirates finally stopped wearing them in the field and the trend for wearing the helmets went away for awhile.

As you can tell, there’s a long and rich history with Mr. Rickey that could be explored.

Also, there were actually five black players in the major leagues in 1947 — but Robinson was the first one. The other four who were called up after him — Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead — faced much of the same racism Robinson did, but don’t have quite the place in history or the same level of success. Doby, the first black player in the American League, went on to have an outstanding career.

What also struck me was was something I’ve written about before in this column: the “pioneers” of black baseball in Ashland’s youth leagues. Reece Banks and Bobby Simpson were the first blacks to play with white peers in the Ashland Babe Ruth League in 1957. They were both so good they made the All-Star team that season, but Banks opted to go to the Boy Scout Jamboree instead.

That opened the door for many others, although some of them faced racial problems outside Ashland.

Mike Johnson and Charlie Jackson were members of the Ashland American Little League state champions in 1963 and 1964. The team was “uninvited” at some hotels and restaurants in Lexington because of the color of skin on these young men. The players and coaches decided if they all couldn’t stay or eat there, then they’d find another place.

What Jackie Robinson did on the big stage of major league baseball in the 1940s is worthy of all the recognition it receives, and that includes this fabulous movie. I highly recommend it. You’ll come away from it entertained, educated and inspired.

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.