KANSAS CITY — Maybe the best way to explain the movie “42” is to tell two stories about Eddie Stanky. Doing this will provide a small spoiler for a movie sidebar, so if you want to go to “42” knowing nothing whatsoever about the story you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. If you are somewhat familiar with the Jackie Robinson story, you’ll already know all this.
Eddie Stanky was a tough little ballplayer from Philadelphia. They called him “The Brat” and “Stank” and “Muggsy” — he was one of those in-your-face players who commanded multiple gritty nicknames. He was 5-foot-8, hit with no power, and he couldn’t run. He was also crazy competitive, could play many positions (he began as a catcher) and, more than anything, he would foul off tough pitches and lay off the bad ones. This combination of obvious flaws and subtle skills kept him in the minor leagues for eight seasons. He might not have been called to the major leagues at all if there wasn’t a war going on — in 1943, the Cubs finally gave him a chance to play. In 1945, at the age of 29, he played second base every day for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he walked 148 times and scored 128 runs, both league-leading totals.
Stanky was the very essence of scrap and grit and pluck and whatever other term for “unbelievably annoying” you can come up with. He used to try and distract hitters by jumping up and down behind the pitcher. He would do just about anything to kick or punch or bump the ball free on tag plays. He had this way of tagging up on sacrifice flies where he would actually get a running start. Every generation has those players who play more for survival than for joy and are willing to push the edge to win. Stanky was beloved by his home fans, despised on the road, and six times he walked 100-plus times. “Thank you,” he once said after receiving an award, “for recognizing my intangibles.”
As for his connection to Jackie Robinson, well, Stanky was Robinson’s Brooklyn teammate in 1947 — that, of course, was the year the Robinson broke the color barrier, the year at the heart of the movie “42.” One week into that season, Robinson faced his nadir — the challenge that almost broke his spirit. The Dodgers played against Philadelphia, and the Phillies — led by their manager Ben Chapman — unleashed a stream of racist invective so disgusting and unavoidable that even the newspapers (who had witnessed Robinson’s first few games and many who were not exactly leading the charge for racial equality in baseball) could not ignore it. Robinson would say it was then, for the first and perhaps only time, he that wondered if he could persevere.
Up to that point, Stanky had shown no particular empathy for Robinson or connection to his cause. A handful of Dodgers players (perhaps led by Dixie Walker, who later talked about his admiration of Robinson) had started a petition to keep Robinson off the team. According to Jonathan Eig’s excellent “Opening Day,” Stanky may have supported that effort. But one thing Eddie Stanky understood was loyalty and the importance of fighting for a teammate. The disgraceful attack by the Phillies spurred Stanky into action.
“Listen you yellow-bellied cowards,” Stanky reportedly yelled at the Phillies from the dugout. “Why don’t you yell at someone who can fight back.”
Well, the wording is debatable Another report, reprinted in the New York Times, had Stanky yelling, “Why don’t you guys go to work one somebody who can fight back? There isn’t one of you has the guts of a louse.”
The movie portrays the scene in even fuller color and has Stanky going through a fairly long and intense exchange with Ben Chapman. There was also an exchange of gratitude between Robinson and Stanky. Maybe the details were not precise, but there is no question that Stanky, driven by loyalty to a teammate and a sense of decency, stood up for Jackie Robinson one week into his career, when it mattered most.
OK, but, there’s a second story about Stanky — one Roger Kahn related in detail in his classic “The Boys of Summer.” The year was 1954, and Robinson had been in the league for seven years, and there were now quite a few African American players, including stars like Willie Mays and Roy Campanella. By the end of that season all but four teams were integrated.*
*The Yankees would finally integrate in 1955 when Elston Howard made the team. The Phillies waited until 1957, Detroit integrated in 1958 and the Red Sox, shamefully, led by “Hall of Fame” owner Tom Yawkey, were last in 1959. I put “Hall of Fame” in quotes when I should not; Shamefully, Yawkey really is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1954, Robinson’s Dodgers played the Cardinals, and the Cardinals players were particularly cruel in their racist jeering — so much so that Robinson told Roger Kahn about it in the expectation and hope that he would write something about it. Robinson had endured so much, and he felt — rightfully so — that he should not have to fight that battle anymore. Kahn, a sportswriter then for the New York Herald Tribune, very much agreed and wanted to write the story. He called up the manager of the Cardinals for confirmation.
The manager: Eddie Stanky.
“I heard nothing out of line,” Stanky told Kahn.
“Are you denying it?” Kahn asked.
“I was right there,’ Stanky said, and Kahn would describe his voice as rising. “I’m telling you I was there and I heard nothing out of line. And you can quote me.”
Kahn did quote him in writing a point-counterpoint, accusation-denial kind of story. But when he went back to tell Robinson what Stanky said — and I always thought this was the most powerful exchange in the entire book — Robinson responded: “Do I need publicity? Do I want racial unrest? I wouldn’t have told you what I told you if it wasn’t true.”
I have always imagined the sad and fierce tone of Robinson’s voice — and the disappointment in it. Kahn had wanted to do the right thing. But he was young and thought it was a story of two equal sides. It was not. Robinson’s dignity when dealing with the death threats and intense verbal assaults demanded that his charge be given far greater weight than half-hearted denials from Eddie Stanky. Kahn had been played, and he knew it. He raced over to Stanky’s office. Stanky was waiting for him: ‘Are Robinson’s feelings hurt?” Stanky asked. “Are they black and blue? … Don’t you get it? BLACK and blue?” Stanky then conceded that the Cardinals HAD racially attacked Robinson. He simply did not consider it out of line.
So … what the point here? The point is that Eddie Stanky was a complicated man. Most people are. He was a key figure in Jackie Robinson crossing the color line in baseball — the biggest story in the history of American sports. He also was a man who saw racial taunting as a way to get an advantage on the baseball diamond. He was touched by decency and he was touched by the racist attitudes of his day. His life was not a story of “good” and “bad.” It was a whirlwind of both. That’s anyone’s life.
Well, the movie “42” is not built for that sort of subtlety and nuance. It is a movie that only has room for the good Eddie Stanky (or the bad Dixie Walker). It is a movie cast in bold colors, a movie where racists are unabashed and heroes are undeterred. It is a movie where characters mostly do not speak like real people but in the undisguised language of history — where Leo Durocher actually says, “Nice guys finish last,” and Branch Rickey growls, “I want someone with the guts NOT to fight back,” and Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Jackie Robinson because, he says, he wants those relatives from Louisville in the stands to “know what I’m about.” It is a movie where you almost never wonder what a character was thinking.
I do not mean this as a negative review — as you will see, I think “42” is an enjoyable, interesting and important movie, and I liked it quite a lot — but to set the guidelines. There are things “42” is. And there are things “42” is not. If you are familiar with the Robinson story, this movie won’t add much to your knowledge. If you have studied the Jackie Robinson story, you will find yourself distracted by the merging of scenes, the simplifying of characters and the occasional sledgehammer that conks you on the head to make sure you didn’t miss the point. If you are looking for shades of gray storytelling about the most consequential sports story in American history, this isn’t your movie.
“42” is not an intellectual movie. It is an emotional one.
And, in so many ways, that was the right way to make this movie. Most people don’t know the Jackie Robinson story. Most people can’t remember or relate to a time when racism was so open and protected by laws and customs and history. Most people will come into this movie not looking for shading or historical preciseness or surprising detail but instead looking to cheer and admire and, more than anything, to be inspired.
In these important ways — CEO of Legendary Pictures Thomas Tull says this will be the most important movie his company ever makes — “42” works. It is a beautiful movie. You have probably heard about how the movie uses computer generated imagery to bring Ebbets Field and Shibe Park and Sportsman Park to life — it is absolutely gorgeous. The baseball scenes don’t just have a nice sense of realism, those scenes bring us closer to the field than any baseball movie i have ever seen. You might know that Johnny Sain was the first pitcher to face Robinson in a big league game His first pitch was a curveball because, as Hall of Famer Lou Brock so eloquently puts it, “the baseball in Sain’s hand wasn’t a weapon of mass destruction, it was a baseball, and Sain was just trying to get Jackie Robinson out.” Sain’s curveball in the movie buzzes and twists with power that will jolt you in your seat.
Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson understands the immense responsibility of his mission and is constantly struggling with himself to fight for the greater good. He portrays Robinson’s inner struggle well. Nicole Beharle’s Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, wants to help and realizes that the only way she can do that is by putting on a brave face and being strong when she doesn’t feel strong. The scenes between them are some of my favorite in the movie.
Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey has been dissected in many places — and he does ham it up enough that I’ve found myself doing Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey impressions ever since leaving the theater — but I thought it worked. I thought it worked because even 75 years later there are many different theories about Branch Rickey’s motives — Rickey was a principled, religious, pompous, tough and, in many ways, inscrutable man. I thought Harrison Ford got that right.
There are numerous wonderful little performances: Christopher Meloni as the world-wise Leo Durocher; Andre Holland as the sportswriter and advocate Wendell Smith; Alan Tudyk as the surprisingly exuberant racist Ben Chapman. But I thought the best by far — one of my favorite ever sports portrayals in any movie — was John C. McGinley’s Red Barber. He was so good, I found myself wishing the whole movie was seen through his eyes.
After the movie ended, I was fortunate enough to do a panel discussion with Lou Brock, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick and Jackie Robinson’s son David. I asked David what he thought of the movie, and he said that more than anything he thought the movie was “true.” There are all sorts of truth. The movie isn’t true in the sense that I suspect none of the conversations happened this way, the timeline was pretty far off, numerous events were condensed into single moments, and complicated people were flattened into two dimensions.
There was only the time and place to tell one Eddie Stanky story in “42.”
But in that larger way of movies, David Robinson is right: the story is true. You come away from it knowing just a little bit more about what Jackie Robinson went through. You come away knowing just a little bit more about the determination of Branch Rickey to change the game. You come away knowing just a little bit more about the power of small gestures and the difficulty of those fights that are most worth fighting. And for fun, you get to meet some old ballplayers, walk into Ebbetts Field in full color and life, dive and snare a line drive and hear Red Barber on that first day describe Jackie Robinson as “definitely a brunette.” That really happened.