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42: A Good Retelling of the Jackie Robinson Story Leaves Out Some Interesting History

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Ever since I met Lester Rodney, I can't think about Jackie Robinson without thinking about him. And so I've wondered what he would have thought about 42, the new movie about Robinson's breaking baseball's "color line" in 1946 and 1947. As Rodney once put it: "The whole history leading up to Jackie Robinson has usually been that an electric light went on in the head of the noble Branch Rickey one morning and he ended baseball discrimination." 42 breaks no new ground here, but, then, Rodney, who was sports editor of the Communist Party's New York City Daily Worker newspaper at that time, wouldn't have expected anything different from a Hollywood production. And I suspect he would have appreciated how well a lot of the film does tell Robinson's story.

Covering itself with a disclaimer that it is only "based on a true story," 42 does take poetic license in eliding various events, but there are also points when the film recreates events with an accuracy that runs deeper than the spoken story line. We meet significant characters like Clyde Sukeforth and Burt Shotton--probably without even realizing that we've met Robinson's first two Brooklyn Dodger managers, along with numerous lesser figures, some with roles so minor as to be barely identifiable.

When we first encounter the guy who was actually supposed to be his first manager, Leo Durocher, it's in bed--with Hollywood actress Laraine Day, then someone else's wife (which affiliation would hasten Leo's departure from Brooklyn and would be worth a movie of its own.) And the detail on all of this is pretty much right. In fact, the movie's only obvious error has Red Barber announcing that Robinson was not caught stealing all of his rookie year. And I have to think that Rodney would have appreciated the film's attention to Wendell Smith, the one aspect that hints at the deeper history behind the events on the screen.

Hired by Rickey to do double duty as a companion for Robinson, who was often not allowed in whites-only accommodations with his teammates, Smith also serves as his film foil. That in addition to his main job reporting the story for the Pittsburgh Courier, then arguably the most influential black-owned newspaper in the country, at one point running 14 separate editions in several states with a total circulation approaching 200,000.

Baseball integration had been a personal interest of Smith's ever since he'd pitched a shutout as a 17-year-old in an American Legion game only to have a baseball scout sign his white catcher but not him--because of his race. (The catcher was Mike Tresh, who had a decade-long major league career, as did his more famous son Tom, a New York Yankee of the 1960s.) Smith actually recommended Robinson to Rickey, although the movie doesn't get into that. For the most part, though, Smith had been a voice in the wilderness, as sportswriters in the mainstream, white-owned press were expected to report who did what on the field and not concern themselves with who wasn't on the field but ought to be. He did have a few comrades out there, though--a couple in the black press--Sam Lacy at the Baltimore Afro-American and Joe Bostic at the New York Amsterdam News. And there was Lester Rodney.

In most respects, life went easier on Rodney than on Smith. Most obviously, being white, Rodney never had to put up with the indignities of segregation that Smith and Robinson suffer through in the movie. And ,while Smith would die of cancer at age 58, when I met Rodney he was on the verge of becoming the top-rated 85-and-older tennis player in California. At the same time, as a Boston Globe article put it a few days after his 2009 death at age 98, the fact that he was a Communist meant that "He was not a welcome ally to many in America's civil rights movement of the early 1900s." In fact, it wasn't until David Falkner's 1995 Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson from Baseball to Birmingham that anything you might call a mainstream publication acknowledged that, with respect to breaking the color line in baseball, "the real push 1936, when the Daily Worker began a steady and unremitting campaign for integration." The book's account acknowledged that the campaign was "spearheaded by sports writer and editor Lester Rodney," and that Smith's Courier only started its campaign for baseball integration "a year or so after the Worker began its push."

The Sporting News, then known as the "Bible of Baseball," once referred to the sport's "tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible." Rodney pursued the matter of just who was part of this "understanding." There were other mainstream white sports reporters who wanted the sport integrated--Westbrook Pegler and Jimmy Powers had written about it--but so far as the daily reporting went, Rodney found "no astonishment at the fact there were guys who couldn't play," when everyone knew they were good enough." Rodney asked questions other sportswriters wouldn't or couldn't: "First we'd go to the top officials and they'd say, 'There's nothing written, it's up to the club owners.' We'd go to the owners and they'd say, 'My heart is with you but the players would never stand for it.' Then you go to the players and shoot that down."

In one piece, entitled "Big Leaguers Rip Jim Crow," Bill McKechnie, Manager of the Cincinnati Reds (they were Reds since before Lenin was born), tells Rodney, "I'd use Negroes if I were given permission." Pitcher Bucky Walters thinks "Some of the best players I've ever seen" were in the Negro Leagues, and Johnny Vandermeer, the pitcher who once threw back-to-back no-hit games, says, "I don't see why they're banned." Nor did Rodney just talk with Reds. The biggest stars in the game, like Dizzy Dean and Carl Hubbell, testified to the abilities of the Negro Leaguers they'd played against in exhibition games. Joe DiMaggio called black star Satchel Paige "the best pitcher I ever faced"--"sensational stuff in 1939," Rodney remembered. In 1937, Paige himself told him, "'I don't think they can keep us out three more years.' But he was wrong. He had to wait another eleven years."

In 1941, Rodney participated in an effort that, had it played out, might have made Wendell Smith's travel a little easier,. When Rodney and his friends in the cause sent telegrams to every major league team owner seeking tryouts for black players, the one positive response came from Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Benswanger. Plans were made for a tryout for Roy Campanella and two other players the following spring, but Benswanger backed out, although "as gracefully as he could," in Rodney's estimation.

For all of that, the record will show that at the time of the events depicted in 42, Wendell Smith dismissed the Communists' baseball integration efforts as doing more harm than good, which Rodney attributed to his working for Rickey who did not want "Baseball's Great Experiment" tarred as a "Communist plot." Whether Rodney's assessment is accurate we can't say, but we do know that Smith didn't always feel that way. The August 20, 1939 Daily Worker ran a letter from Smith thanking the paper "for the way you have joined with us in the current series concerning Negro Players in the major leagues, as well as all your past great efforts in this aspect."

Kudos for Communists were hard to come by back then. A rare exception was Roy Campanella's acknowledgment of the Daily Worker in a 1952 biography, in which he said the paper had "pounded hard and unceasingly against the color line in organized ball." As late as 1994, the Ken Burns PBS baseball history documentary noted that, previous to the events of 42, Leo Durocher had told a sportswriter that he would use some of the great Negroes on the Dodgers in a minute if he were given permission, but there was no mention that the sportswriter's name was Lester Rodney. (My favorite Rodney/Durocher quote, though, is when Leo the Lip told Lester, "For a f*cking communist, you know your baseball.")

One of the players that even the casual fan will catch in the movie is shortstop Pee Wee Reese, on whom Rodney waxed particularly eloquent: "When Jackie Robinson had first come up he was taking a lot of punishment because he had promised Rickey not to fight back, no matter what. Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals came down on his heel at first base (an incident shown in the film); another time some little known shortstop for the Chicago Cubs pretended that Robinson had done something wrong sliding into second and jumped on top of him and began pummeling him and Robinson lay there until the umpires came and pushed the shortstop off.

"We sportswriters spent time in the dugout before games and knew some of the white players on the Dodgers were really troubled by what was happening. The discussions would go something like this: 'Democracy means that everybody's the same, so you treat everybody the same, so that means we don't do anything special. You treat Jackie the same way as anybody.' Pee Wee cut a layer deeper and he scratched his Kentucky head and he said, 'Yeah, democracy means everybody is the same, but things aren't the same for Jackie because he's the only colored guy and he's catching special hell because of that, so maybe there's a way we can make things the same for him.' If that isn't affirmative action! Here's a baseball player saying this. That's the special contribution of Pee Wee Reese."

Rodney left the Communist Party in 1957, after Khrushchev's revelations about the Stalin-era forced most of the remaining party members to recognize what most everyone else already knew: Stalinism wasn't something you'd recommend to a friend. But even as Rodney concluded that he and his comrades had been "rigid simpletons," his commitment to the causes that brought him to the party never faded. Nor did his estimation of Jackie Robinson. In 2007, the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson's breakthrough, he told me, "He was an underrated American hero whose statue should be on the Mall in Washington, apart from the kind of ballplayer he was." So, yeah, I think Lester would have liked the movie, even if it didn't tell the whole story.

Tom Gallagher wrote the Jackie Robinson biography in the little noticed 1990 volume of the baseball biographical reference, The Ballplayers.

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Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."

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