Posts Tagged ‘42’

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.

Jackie Robinson and the Hall of Fame

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Though not technically the first black player in the major leagues—that distinction belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker of the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884—Jackie Robinson destroyed the unspoken yet visible barrier constructed in the late 1880s preventing blacks from joining a major league team.

Mr. Robinson’s début is no less a civil rights moment than Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, or President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Walking on to the diamond at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 preceded these civil rights hallmarks, marking a historic day, not only for baseball, but also for America.  But there are other dates that are highly significant in Jackie Robinson’s career.

Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 at the team’s headquarters—215 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Jackie Robinson played his first game in Organized Baseball on April 18, 1946, when the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league team, played the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City.

The Baseball Writers Association of America elected Robinson to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 23, 1962, a fact that he learned after coming home to 95 Cascade Road in Stamford, Connecticut, after spending the day in Manhattan’s corporate jungle as an executive with Chock full o’ Nuts; 1962 was Robinson’s first year of eligibility.

Excitement in the Robinson household was akin to the excitement that the Dodgers’ #42 generated at Ebbets Field.  “When I came home from work Rachel was on the phone telling David, our nine-year-old, about it,” said Robinson in the Christian Science Monitor.  “When she was me, she dropped the receiver and squealed that I had made it.”

Robinson’s Hall of Fame election was not automatic, however.  For example, Joe DiMaggio did not get elected in his first year of eligibility.  Neither did Bill Terry.  Needing a minimum of 75% of the ballots, Robinson got 124 of 160.  It was four more than necessary.

Jackie Robinson was the first black player elected to the Hall of Fame.  Arthur Daley of the New York Times addressed the issue of Robinson’s Hall of Fame election being based on his career or his color.  “It really doesn’t matter much,” declared Daley.  “Both factors undoubtedly entered into consideration because they are so intertwined that separation is impossible.  The feeling here is that he rated on both counts and no conscious effort was made to split them.  Now he has blazed another trail and it will be easier henceforth for other Negroes to follow him into Cooperstown.”

His 10-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers yielded Robinson a .311 batting average, 1,518 hits, and 734 RBI.  Robinson’s contribution to the game cannot be measured in numbers alone, however.  Pioneering the path of integration littered with jeers, boos, and death threats required an unimaginable strength of the soul.  After Jackie Robinson came Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Don Newcombe, Elston Howard, and scores of other black players.

Baseball would never be the same.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 15, 2014.

Whose Life Story Is It Anyway?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The life story genre is a staple of baseball films.

Fear Strikes Out depicted the anxieties of Jimmy Piersall.  William Bendix and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story and The Babe, respectively.  42 spotlighted Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking into the major leagues.  The Pride of the Yankees showcased Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional lives.  It is either a baseball story with a love story as a backdrop, or vice versa.

Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story.  Ronald Reagan, known throughout his film and political career because of his portrayal as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, added a baseball role to his roster of credits when he portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

Ballplayers are heroes on the diamond, but they are also, nonetheless, human.  Stratton overcame an injury to his leg caused by a gunshot while hunting.  Robinson endured hatred in the form of racial taunts baked into a public attitude about minorities.  His inner strength pushed him to excellence in spite of horrific opposition in discrimination, bigotry, and human indecency.  Gehrig, of course, symbolized courage in the face of a debilitating disease, proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” while his physical ability diminished.

These stories go beyond mere entertainment.  They are inspiring because they are real.  Overcoming a tragedy is a cornerstone of drama.  Writers and producers face a challenge in offering stories with a baseball theme—depicting the tale on film or on television may require sacrificing time for the sport to give more time to the story.  In his review of The Pride of the Yankees for the New York Times, noted film critic Bosley Crowther underscored this point.  “Furthermore, sports fans will protest, with reason on their side, that a picture about a baseball player should have a little more baseball in it,” wrote Crowther.  “Quite true, this one has considerable footage showing stands and diamonds of the American League, with Lou at bat, running bases and playing the initial bag.  What is shown is accurate.  But it is only shown in glimpses or montage sequences, without catching much of the flavor or tingling excitement of a tight baseball game.  Fans like to know what’s the inning, how many are on and how many out.  At least, the score.”

Facts are public domain for a life story.  For example, Lou Gehrig’s estate has no legal recourse for a Gehrig life story indicating that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games.  But there will need to be agreements regarding Gehrig’s image, Major League Baseball trademarks, photographs, and film footage in a visual representationfilm, television, cartoon, book, comic book, art, merchandising, arcade game, and computer game.  Terms will include limitations on the use and the crediting of the material.

When the producers of a life story seek to incorporate material from a copyrighted work, then a license agreement will be  sought.  Another option is contracting for the right to create a new work based on the original copyrighted work.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 15, 2013.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson changed baseball when the former signed the latter to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.  They broke organized baseball’s color line that was never codified but seemingly understood

Earlier this year, the movie 42 debuted.  It showed the genesis of the Robinson-Rickey relationship that began in 1945 at 215 Montague Street, the headquarters of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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Mr. Robinson and Mr. Rickey

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

42:  The Jackie Robinson Story opens in theatres on Friday, April 12th.  The date is appropriate — nearly 66 years to the day when Jackie Robinson made his official debut in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947.  He played, of course, for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Baseball has never been the same since.  Thankfully.

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