By Matt Singer
In honor of the start of the 2008 baseball season, IFC.com will be paying tribute to the national pastime’s long relationship with the movies every day this week by giving you everything you’d ever want to know about the odd little quasi-autobiographical ditties in which baseball players have played themselves. Peanuts and crackerjacks not included.
“The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
As Himself: Jackie Robinson
Game Story: “This is the story of a boy and his dream, but more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American,” an off-screen narrator says as we watch a young African-American boy walk down a suburban street. The boy grows up to be Jackie Robinson and the film shares his struggle to reach and later be accepted as an equal by Major League Baseball. That opening narration, as well as many of the conversations between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) couch Robinson’s efforts in patriotic terms. “We’re dealing with rights here,” Rickey tells one of his advisors. “The right of any American to play baseball, the American game.”
On-Field Achievements: In his ten major league seasons, Robinson would play in six All-Star games, win one Most Valuable Player award, the first-ever Rookie of the Year Award, and help Brooklyn win its only World Series in 1955. Most importantly, of course, on April 15, 1947, he broke baseball’s color barrier in a game against the Boston Braves. On the 50th anniversary of that day, Robinson became the first player to have his number retired league-wide in recognition of his contributions to the game.
On-Screen Achievements: Look, no one would ever mistake Jackie Robinson for Laurence Olivier. But Robinson’s presence in his own life’s story adds an incalculable sense of authenticity, particularly when he steps out on the diamond, where “The Jackie Robinson Story” gives as good a display of his remarkable physical abilities as I’ve ever seen. Unlike a lot of the movies that we’re looking at this week, this one features lots of baseball footage and plenty of opportunities to see its star in action. Robinson was a notorious base-stealer and I particularly appreciated the opportunity to see him show off his patented hook slide.
Errors Committed: Rickey discovers Robinson while he’s playing for a team named the Black Panthers. In fact, that was the nickname of Robinson’s tank battalion during World War II. (Interestingly, Robinson never saw any combat during the war after he was court-martialed and honorably discharged after refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus). Robinson spent his Negro League career with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Discoveries: It’s somewhat astonishing to see such a powerful and direct movie about race from the year 1950; you’d expect this sort of film to come out least a decade later, when the political climate would be more receptive to this story. But having the courage to make a movie like this one one that does not shy away from its subject’s beliefs was exactly what made Robinson so special. The film’s stirring finale gives Robinson the chance to speak directly to the American people. He says “I know that life in these United States can be tough for people who are a little different from the majority. I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro-Americans. But I do know that democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it, and I’m sure it’s worth defending. I can’t speak for any 50 million people; no one person can. But I’m certain that I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare to throw it away, or let it be taken from us.”
Substitutions: This autobiographical pic remains the definitive cinematic version of Jackie’s life, but Robinson was played later by Blair Underwood (in a nice physical match) as a member of the ensemble of the 1996 HBO movie “Soul of the Game,” a docudrama about how Robinson’s exodus to the majors impacted Negro League stars like Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo) and Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson).
Final Score: Like a fastball high and inside, “The Jackie Robinson Story” is blunt but effective. It would make an ideal film to show to school children learning about civil rights they’d get excited by the baseball (and the idea that they’re watching the real Jackie Robinson), which would make them receptive to the film’s lessons, which are delivered clearly and passionately, and in just the right tone for a kid audience.
[Photo: Poster for “The Jackie Robinson Story,” Eagle-Lion Films, 1950]