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When Major Leaguers Play Themselves: “The Jackie Robinson Story”

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By Matt Singer

In honor of the start of the 2008 baseball season, 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.

04032008_thejackierobinsonstory.jpg“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]

Part 1: Babe Ruth in “Headin’ Home”
Part 2: Joe DiMaggio in “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round”
Part 3: Lou Gehrig in “Rawhide”
Part 5: Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in “Safe at Home!”; Keith Hernandez on “Seinfeld”

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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