There's a very nice piece over on Truthdig about Jackie Robinson, written by Alan Bara, who writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal, and has a couple of baseball books to his credit, including an upcoming one on Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
It’s an interesting and insightful article, well-written and informative, giving some more detail and shadings to the Robinson story tht couldn't make it into the film. Like the author, I too was scratching my head at Leo Durocher being suspended in the film for reasons of morality, living with a married woman, rather than the real reason which gambling. Also, he’s right about Leo Durocher never saying, “Nice guys finish last,” as he does in the film, but it would have been worth nothing that Durocher did “write” a book with that title.
However, I do have a few quibbles, mostly about the author's perception of Hollywood and making movies. None made me discount the article – it’s quite good and well-worth reading – just that, like he wishes the movie had gotten everything spot-on right, I wish his article, did, too.
(Since I'm going to spend more time here with complaints than praise, that likely will give an imbalanced view of the article. Do know that it's quite good.)
The article begins with two paragraphs of complaint that baseball took so long to make a movie about Jackie Robinson and saying how “it seems odd” -- but this shows little understanding of Hollywood. First of all, as Mr. Bara himself notes, there was a movie about Jackie Robinson, and then another one too that he mentions. So, Hollywood probably figured that they’d not only made the movie – but the definitive one, since Robinson himself starred in it. They certainly wouldn't jump right in to make another one right away -- but hen 15 years passed, and the market changed in the mid-60s. Hollywood discovered the Youth Culture, and the world market began to open. In fact, in these last 50 years there have been very few movies about real-life baseball players – in part, I assume because the foreign market is so small for them. There was Cobb and The Babe, but I can’t of all that many others. (Eight Men Out and Moneyball weren’t really about A Player. That leaves Fear Strikes Out, which counts, but was less about baseball than Jimmy Piersall's off-the-field battle with mental illness) So, while he’s right that it’s an oversight, it‘s not remotely as “odd” as he says, justifying him going on at length at the start of the article -- most especially since there were two movies.
I also thought his complaining about the scroll at the end (updating the audience) was ridiculous, suggesting that the movie implies this is the end of the story, with happy news about the Hall of Fame for so many people, but that the story really went farther and had sadness. Yeah, that’s the way movies about great accomplishment always end, by noting that the hero got diabetes and eventually died, and there was subsequent sadness in the lives of some of the characters! To mention the difficulties that Robinson's son, Jackie, Jr., had would have been pointless – in part, because Jackie Jr. really isn’t even mentioned in the movie, in the first place. And to complain about “one of the great acts of disloyalty,” when the Dodgers traded Jackie Robinson to the the hated rivals, the Giants, was something I felt far too over the top -- yes, it was a big deal, and Robinson retired rather than be traded, but he was nearing the end of his career, which is why he was traded. And even Babe Ruth got traded – and if not to the Yankees' hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, but to the city of their hated rivals, the Boston Braves. Players get traded. Legendary players get traded. Players get traded to rivals. It happens. Is it disloyal? Would it have been better than to just cut the player and leave him with nothing?
In his updating what happened to the principals, the author also made it sound like the reporter, Wendell Smith, had a sad, tragic end to his writing career, not being able to write a book about Jackie Robinson "in a discrimination as unjust as what Robinson was subject to," In fact Wendell Smith had a distinguished career writing for decades in Chicago, and becoming a TV sportscaster. I know -- I grew up reading him in the ChicagO Sun-Times and watching him on WGN. He also lived until 1972. Why he didn't write a book about Jackie Robinson as society hit the mid-60s and the Civil Rights Movement began to grow, I have no idea. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suspect that he might have had a chance to do so. Also, what the movie leaves out -- as does Mr. Bara -- is that Wendell Smith was posthumously inducted into the journalism wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Finally, I think Alan Bara's criticism of Major League Baseball taking 50 years to retire Jackie Robinson’s number for all teams was misguided. Such a thing had never been done in baseball’s history. (It hasn’t been done in football or basketball.) For baseball to do it at all was remarkable and should be praised, period. Not derided that it took so long. And I don’t think it was “so long.” Most things require at least some time and distance.
To be clear, I liked the article a lot, and do recommend reading it. It's very good, and very informative. I just think he made some mistakes, just as he suggests the movie did. (As we all do...) And I’m not sure that I think most of those movie mistakes were problematic.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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