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Jackie Robinson’s courage as civil rights pioneer subject of film ‘42’

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s a movie that first lady Michelle Obama says every American should see, and it premieres Thursday night here.

Because before Jackie Robinson donned a baseball jersey with the number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers — becoming the first African American player in the major leagues — he played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

Harrison Ford, who plays Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson, listen as First Lady Michelle Obama discusses the new film "42." (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images) Harrison Ford, who plays Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson, listen as first lady Michelle Obama discusses the new film “42.” (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s why the new movie about Robinson — titled “42” for the number that has since been retired from all major league baseball teams in his honor — will premiere tonight in Kansas City. (Premiere is an odd term these days; I always thought it meant “first,” but the film, written and directed by Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland, also had premieres in Los Angeles and New York, and it was screened for President Obama and Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, last week.)

Harrison Ford, along with other cast members and baseball luminaries, will attend a red-carpet event benefiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Sports Commission. Also appearing will be Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie Robinson, David Robinson, the late baseball player’s son, and Linda Paige Shelby, daughter of Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. It sold out several days ago; for $1,000, you could get a pair of tickets allowing you to sit in the same theater as Ford.

In a switch from leading man roles, Ford plays Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who recruited Robinson for both moral and business reasons, it seems. Ford told the Kansas City Star that he read “extensively” about the character.

“He grew up in rural Ohio, and I know what his early history was,” Ford said. “I know he was a deeply religious guy, that he was a schoolteacher at 17, that he was a lay preacher. He never went to games on Sunday.”

But there was another side to Rickey as well.“You know, you play a guy that is a businessman and his business is baseball,” Ford said. “He wants the best team that he can get. He wants access to the pool of talent that’s in the Negro Leagues, and he’s got the authority of the board of directors to go ahead. And he needs a partner. He finds a partner in Jackie Robinson.”

Ford reiterated that theme during his appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” Wednesday to promote the film, explaining that Rickey was “a deeply religious man” who was also “a baseball businessman.”

The actor also tried to set the scene of post-World War II America. Back then, there was “white baseball,” he said, and the Negro Leagues, and it was a time before basketball and football had become popular.

A statue in Brooklyn of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese commemorates a moment of support. (Brooklyn Cyclones/Associated Press) A statue in Brooklyn of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese commemorates a moment of support. (Brooklyn Cyclones/Associated Press)

“Baseball was America and America was baseball,” the actor said. That explains why the movie is about much more than the sport of baseball. It tells the story of the first step in desegregation, which occurred before President Harry Truman desegregated military troops and before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

Robinson faced hateful fans who yelled racial slurs and spat at him during games; he faced wayward pitches that struck him in the head; and he even faced death threats. Through it all, he showed restraint and courage in not fighting back.

In the film clip I saw Wednesday, the character of Rickey tells Robinson, “We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.”

Among the iconic moments captured in the movie is one of my favorites; during this particular game, believed to have been played in Cincinnati, baseball “fans” were particularly loud and especially cruel. The story goes that Dodgers short stop Pee Wee Reese, who was also team captain, left the infield to go stand by Robinson and put his arm around him in a show of support, quieting the hecklers.

Reese said in a 1997 interview: “Something in my gut reacted at the moment. Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don’t know.”

Watching a moment like that through the magic of film is to relive the emotions, as Ford told Letterman. It brings history to life and teaches a new generation about a pioneer who was much more than just a baseball player.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan., and a fan of the Kansas City Royals. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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