I just had to see “42.”
The reviews have been pretty complimentary. It’s been a surprising box office attraction. And the first personal account I received was full of praise for the basic baseball accuracy and paucity of Hollywood hokum, and this had come from someone who deeply loves baseball and understands it.
On that score, let me say this: Friends can dispassionately agree to disagree.
I say that because I believe “42,” as well-intentioned as it is, to be just another in an endless line of Hollywood biopics that wind up messing with history and infuriating anyone who enters the theater with even a smidgen of knowledge about the subject and the world in which he or she operates.
It doesn’t matter if the subject is Emile Zola, Cole Porter, Abraham Lincoln, or, in this case, Jackie Robinson. No matter how good the story, history is never good enough for Hollywood. It must be embellished.
Now, I’m just asking. Did it really happen that in his very first plate appearance, in his very first exhibition game as a new member of the 1946 Montreal Royals — coming, naturally against the parent Brooklyn Dodgers — that Jackie Robinson (a) drew a four-pitch walk from a pitcher clearly irked at the sight of a black man holding a bat, (b) stole second and advanced to third on a concurrent wild throw to center, and (c) scored by inducing a balk? Never heard that one.
And was he really deliberately beaned by Pittsburgh’s Fritz Ostermueller? Uh, no. He was once hit by Ostermueller, but beanings played no role in Robinson’s 10-year major league career. And that leads to another issue.
The Ostermueller family is not pleased with the characterization of the onetime Red Sox pitcher (1934-40) as a kneejerk racist.
His 65-year-old daughter, Sherill Ostermueller-Duesterhaus, has this to say: “You shouldn’t have to make anything up. Truth and fiction get blurred in this picture. It put a spotlight on my father for the wrong reason.”
And, um, not to nitpick, but the “42” hurler in question, like all pitchers featured in the movie, was righthanded. I never saw Fritz pitch, but every listing I’ve found says he was a southpaw.
The important thing, however, is Ms. Ostermueller-Duesterhaus’s assertion that, “You shouldn’t have to make anything up.” There were enough manifestations of the time’s essential racism available for portrayal without smearing an innocent player, dead for 56 years and thus not here to defend himself — not that defending one’s self against racism charges is easy in any context.
One thing the movie does get right is the sickening behavior of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. It has been thoroughly documented that he did taunt Robinson viciously, and Alan Tudyk succeeds quite nicely in demonstrating Chapman’s blind rage at the very thought of an N-word sullying his precious major league baseball.
Director-writer Brian Helgeland’s script makes it clear that Chapman had a limited vocabulary. Chapman was one of the more unsavory characters in 20th century baseball. He was fired during the course of the 1948 season and never worked in baseball again.
Robinson had an outstanding rookie season, winning the first Rookie of the Year award by batting .297 and accompanying it with a healthy .383 on-base percentage (he would retire with an exemplary .409 lifetime OBP) and an .810 OPS. (Of course, in 1947, no one knew what OPS was.)
He led the league in stolen bases with 29. He also brought an electrifying base-running style that rattled opposing pitchers and managers alike. And he did it all while playing first base, a position he had never played before.
But nowhere in my extensive readings covering six decades of sports fandom do I recall hearing about him clinching the 1947 pennant for the Dodgers with a home run in Pittsburgh. I must have skipped those pages, because that’s what Mr. Helgeland has him doing.
And get this: He has Jackie watching the home run from the batter’s box. In 1947? Unimaginable.
Hollywood! Every point must be exaggerated in order for it to have any resonance, I guess. Did Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger captain and shortstop and Louisville, Ky., native, really put his arm around Robinson before a game while they were standing near first base with absolutely no one else on the field?
Whatever Pee Wee did — and there is a lot of historical debate on the subject — he did not do it in that manner. When Chapman unleashed his verbal garbage at Robinson, did he do it while standing 10 feet in front of the dugout while Robinson was at the plate? I mean, really. Have you ever seen a manager operating outside the dugout while the game was in progress?
And when Dodgers second baseman Eddie Stanky confronted Chapman, telling him to shut up, did he do so in front of Chapman’s dugout?
Did an angry Robinson really break a bat in the runway, only to be met by general manager Branch Rickey, down from Olympus, the office, or wherever? Only in, yup, Hollywood.
Does it matter if we see four umpires gathering at home plate prior to Robinson’s Montreal debut, when modern International League crews consist of three umps and the allotment in those days was most likely two?
OK, that probably is nitpicking of the highest degree. But when I see Jackie Robinson seated in his clubhouse having a conversation with Ralph Branca while wearing his baseball cap on backward, my head is ready to explode. Nobody, but nobody could have remotely conceived of such a thing in 1947. That fashion statement was more than four decades in the future.
But here’s what is good about “42.”
1. The casting is superb. Chadwick Boseman gets Jackie the person and he is entirely believable as a baseball player. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was a man of surpassing intelligence and fierce pride. Boseman avoids turning him into a pious cartoon figure, and thank God for his obvious athleticism. This is not Tony Perkins embarrassing himself in “Fear Strikes Out.”
Nicole Beharie is flat-out beautiful, and she has to be, because Rachel Robinson can stop a room even today as she nears 91. She completes him, as ’tis said, and they make an endearing couple.
Christopher Meloni, of “Law & Order: SVU” fame (and riches), has Leo Durocher’s hairline, looks surprisingly like him, and brings The Lip to life. It was enough to make me stop thinking about how much physically bigger than Leo he is.
And who knew that Han Solo would grow up to be Branch Rickey?
I’ve read some criticisms of Harrison Ford’s performance as being over the top, but that’s ridiculous because Rickey was a thoroughly larger-than-life figure, requiring a commanding actor to do the job. Ford’s physical resemblance to the Mahatma is amazing, and he is believable to the max. I smell Oscar nomination.
As far as John C. McGinley’s Red Barber is concerned, however, I don’t know whom to blame. He gets the low-key part somewhat right, but Red was Southern, not a prissy pseudo-Brit. And having Barber respond to the fictitious pennant-clinching home run with applause and smiles while in the broadcast booth is sacrilegious. Red was the ultimate down-the-middle baseball reporter-as-broadcaster. His heirs should sue for defamation.
2. The ballparks are great.
Someone take a bow. The re-creations of Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field (Cincinnati), and Forbes Field (Pittsburgh) are terrific.
That the film exists at all is important. Flawed though it may be, it is one of the most important American stories of the 20th century and it should be seen by every young person, of any color and background, male or female. It sheds light on a very important subject.
But someone should be there to tell them when it says in the beginning that it is “based on” a true story, they aren’t kidding.
I hear that Spike Lee always wanted to make this movie, but was stymied for various reasons. Now that would have been interesting.
Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.