Digging into "42" - Did they get their facts straight?

WARNING: You probably shouldn't read the following unless you've already seen "42" or you're waiting for Netflix or something. If you going to see it in the next week or two, I recommend holding off as there are probably some things here that you don't want to know yet. But please come back!

As you've no doubt heard, 42 has been a big hit, both with moviegoers and (though somewhat less so) with critics.

Earlier this week I checked on Facebook, and 120 percent of my friends have seen the movie. What's more, 110 percent of them agreed almost exactly with my take: 42 is flawed, as nearly every movie is, but tells a good tale as well as we might have reasonably hoped it would.

Which doesn't mean I've not seen plenty of complaints elsewhere; from some of the critiques I've read, you might guess the filmmakers had dug up Jackie Robinson's grave and used his bones to construct a makeshift shrine to the segregationist memories of Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

What some of the critics object to are the omissions, and there are plenty of them. Multitudes of them. Multitudes, necessarily.

I just made a rough count of the books on my shelves that specifically cover Jackie Robinson and integration. I came up with 15. Mind you, I don't have all the books out there, and I'm not even beginning to count all the books about the Brooklyn Dodgers, or about Branch Rickey, or about Robinson's teammates and competitors. If my office and my library were in better order, I might make a pile of every book here that contains substantive information or opinions about Jackie Robinson in those years; in the presence of such order, I will guess that I could easily find 100 books like that.

Now, imagine that you're trying to tell this story in two hours. You've got some choices to make. A lot of choices when you're writing the screenplay, and a lot of choices when you're in the editing room.

So, yes: There's some important stuff missing. In the movie, Jackie Robinson is the only black player at spring training with the Montreal Royals in 1946; in real life, pitcher John Wright was there, too. In the movie, it's Jackie Robinson and writer Wendell Smith braving segregationist Florida; in real life, it was Robinson and Wright and Smith and photographer Billy Rowe. In the movie, it's not clear that Mississippian Clay Hopper, Jackie's manager in 1946, ever got used to managing a black player; as I wrote here, Hopper grew to admire Robinson that season. More generally, it's been suggested that 42 should have somehow covered 20 years of social and labor history, or given us a more nuanced vision of Jackie Robinson instead of turning him into a sort of Magical Negro.

As I've probably made clear by now, I don't hold a great deal of truck with those criticisms. I appreciate them and I welcome them and I'll defend to my death (or mild illness, anyway) the critics' right to make them. But I don't believe they invalidate the efforts of the people who made 42. It seems to me that with so many things that might have been in the movie, it makes more sense to focus on what's in, rather than what's not.

And there are some things in the movie that do seem like humdingers.

Early on, Jackie's in spring training and an African-American boy comes to the game with his mother; this is Florida, so of course they're relegated to the "colored" section of the stands. Later, Jackie throws the kid a baseball as the Dodgers train is leaving town; the boy runs alongside the train, and as it passes from view he drops to the ground and puts his ear to the rail.

Now, this all seems far too good to be true, purely the product of some Hollywood screenwriter's fertile imagination.

Well, except that Ed Charles did grow up in Daytona Beach, Florida. When the Dodgers visited in 1947, he wasn't as young as the kid in the movie, who looks to be eight or nine years old; Charles was 13. But decades later, Charles would talk about seeing the Dodgers play an exhibition game, and then following the club to the train station afterward.

"We followed the train after it left as far as we could," Charles told Maury Allen. "We figured we could stay close to Jackie by holding on to the track after it. We ran as far as we could and then we put our heads down on the track to feel the vibrations, to stay with Jackie Robinson as long as possible."

Maybe that actually happened, and maybe it didn't. But the point is that there is a record of it happening. And "Helicopter" Charles, no doubt inspired by Jackie Robinson, did sign with the Braves in 1952, and he did play third base for the Mets in 1969.

While watching the movie, I did make notes about some things that didn't ring true, or that annoyed me.

The first was a graphic that established the setting for a scene as "Interstate 24, Missouri" ... which is a really odd thing, since the Interstate Highway System didn't exist until the 1950s. There was a U.S. Route 24, which ran (and still runs) the width of the Show-Me State, and there's little doubt that the Kansas City Monarchs would have traveled the road at some point during Jackie Robinson's time with the club. I just have no idea why the director chose "Interstate" rather than "Route" or "Highway". This is the sort of needless inaccuracy that can take a viewer (i.e. me) out of the moment, even if just for a second.

Same scene, two important things happen: Jackie strikes a small blow against segregation -- he threatens to take his team's business elsewhere if a filling-station attendant doesn't let him use the lavatory -- and Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth pops into the movie and invites Robinson to Brooklyn. Of course it didn't happen this way, but it's true that Jackie did supposedly strike this blow, and it's true that Sukeforth did track Jackie down and convince him to meet with Branch Rickey in Brooklyn. This scene is short-hand, and the necessary sort.

Later, when Jackie and Rachel Robinson are traveling to Florida for his first spring training with the Dodgers -- well, actually the Montreal Royals -- there's a problem at the New Orleans airport, when they're bumped from a flight after Rachel dares use a "Whites Only" lavatory.

Did this happen. Well, not precisely. As Jackie would later tell the story, they were bumped for what was probably a bullshit reason (military priorities) and forced to spend the night in New Orleans. They did get a flight early the next morning to Pensacola ... and then were bumped again, this time without being given a reason. And so this time they took Greyhound the rest of the way, just as they do in the movie. What's not in the movie -- left on the cutting-room floor, I suspect -- was this, from Jackie's memoir:

The bus was empty when we boarded, and we had taken seats in the middle of the bus. I fell fast asleep. At the first stop, a crowd of passengers got on. The bus driver gestured to us, indicating that we were to move to the back of the bus. The seats at the back were reserved seats -- reserved for Negroes -- and they were straight-backed. No little button to push. No reclining seats.

I had a few bad seconds, deciding whether I could continue to endure this humiliation. After we had been bumped a second time at the Pensacola Airport, I had been ready to explode with rage, but I knew that the result would be newspaper headlines about an ugly racial incident and possible arrest not only for me but also for Rae. By giving in to my feelings then, I could have blown the whole major league bit. I had swallowed my pride and choked back my anger...

You just have to leave out some stuff. What's important is what you put in. And there's nothing in this part of the movie that doesn't belong there.

There are a couple of incidents in the movie from spring training in '46. First, Robinson is prohibited from playing in Sanford, Florida; later, he scores a run in a game in Deland and is immediately ordered from the field by the local sheriff. What really happened in Sanford and Deland? The contemporary accounts and the memories are hazy, but it's very clear that some powerful people in that part of the country did what they could -- short of actual violence, thankfully -- to keep black players and white players from playing together on the local diamonds.

There's also a scene wherein a white citizen of Sanford, the Royals' spring-training home, comes to the house where Wendell Smith and Robinson are staying and says there will be trouble if Jackie doesn't get out of town. Well, according to Smith and Billy Rowe, something very much like this actually did happen, and Jackie was immediately hustled out of town.

Later in the movie, Smith tells Robinson that he sits in the stands with his typewriter because "Negro reporters are not allowed in the press box." This didn't ring true to me. I've not been able to track down anything on the subject, but it would surprise me to learn that the press boxes in New York were closed to black writers.

Getting back to odd inaccuracies ... just before Opening Day in 1947, Leo Durocher gets suspended for the season. A lesser movie would have simply ignored this fact, because Durocher's suspension and replacement take up five minutes of valuable screen time, and 99 percent of the viewers wouldn't have known the difference if the movie just pretended that Durocher never went anywhere. But instead, we see him get suspended and we're introduced to kindly old Burt Shotton, managing in street clothes and a satin Dodgers jacket. Which scored some major bonus points with me.

Here's the odd part, though: In the movie, Durocher is suspended because Commissioner Happy Chandler is concerned about the Catholic Youth Organization's critical stance regarding Durocher's liberal stance about trifles like sleeping with ladies who might not be your wife and might even be someone else's wife. Which did happen; the CYO was not a big fan. But that's not why Durocher got suspended, or not the only reason anyway. In real life, Chandler suspended Durocher for "the accumulation of incidents" that were "detrimental to baseball," and some of those incidents involved gambling and associating with actor George Raft, who was friendly with a number of organized-crime figures. My guess is that Major League Baseball had script approval, and didn't want the word "gambling" in the movie. Just a guess.

You know what, though? This doesn't matter. The CYO reference is shorthand and does represent at least a portion of the whole story. And thus it's perfectly appropriate.

My next note came about 75 minutes into the movie:

nobody smoking but full ash tray in press box

In those days, almost everybody smoked. Jackie Robinson didn't, but most of his teammates would have, as would nearly all of the writers, and I would be surprised if Red Barber didn't smoke during the games. Much of the crowd in the stands, too. Yet I can't recall seeing a single lit cigarette in the entire film. The only real smoking we see is done by Branch Rickey, who basically lives with a burning stogie in his paw.

I'm not really complaining. I do think it would have been a better movie if at least some of the people who smoked in real life at least occasionally smoked in the movie. You know, for the simple sake of verisimilitude. But it's not hard to imagine why that was left out.

A few more things in my notes ...

At one point, the Dodgers' bus arrives at a Philadelphia hotel, only to be turned away because of Jackie's presence. I've not been able to track down that incident in the sources at hand.

There's an odd, supposed-to-be-funny scene that's not really funny, wherein Ralph Branca convinces Jackie that it's okay to shower with the rest of the team. This seems to have actually happened, but it seems to have been Al Gionfriddo who did the convincing. I suspect it's Branca in the movie because a) today Branca's still hale and hearty, while Gionfriddo died 10 years ago, and b) Gionfriddo didn't join the Dodgers until May, while we meet Branca (in the movie) on Opening Day. Not a big deal at all, unless your Al Gionfriddo's granddaughter or something.

Late in the film, Jackie's on first base and Red Barber tells his radio audience that Robinson "has stolen 27 bases this season and yet to be thrown out attempting."

This one set my alarm bells a-ringing. We all know Jackie was an outstanding baserunner, but 27 for 27 just doesn't pass the sniff test at all. Indeed, if you check his Baseball-Reference.com page you'll see a blank space -- and not a zero, I must stress -- where his caught stealings would be ... but that's just because CS wasn't an official statistic in 1947. We do have the actual, unofficial numbers for Jackie because we've got (via Retrosheet) play-by-play data for the '47 Dodgers. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was caught stealing 11 times.

So why does the movie get it wrong? Frankly, I believe this was a willful error, and inexcusable. I think they needed a line in the script to get across Jackie's élan on the bases, and figured that fudging this one wouldn't bother anyone. And if it did, they can always fall back on Baseball-Reference for plausible deniability. Well, it ain't working.

There were some sketchy game details, too. Toward the end of the season, Jackie hits a dramatic home run in what is supposedly the Dodgers' pennant-clinching victory. Well, he did hit a big home run but the Dodgers didn't clinch until a day or two later. But, you know, it's baseball and what's a baseball movie without a dramatic home run?

I also have a note that says no black teammate in 1947. I don't remember if that was prompted by something in particular, or if it just occurred to me that, just as Jackie hadn't been alone in spring training in 1946, he also wasn't alone during the '47 season with the Dodgers. Not during all of it, anyway; in late August, Dan Bankhead joined the Dodgers and eventually got into four games. But again, I completely understand why Bankhead isn't in the movie.

I stayed through the closing credits, and this was tacked to the very end ...

Dialogue and certain elements of the film have been dramatized.

You don't say.

There's no doubt about it. But what's been striking, as I've waded into many of the books that must have served as source material for the screenplay, is how many of the film's elements, including the dialogue, were not simply invented for the movie. What the filmmakers have essentially done is choose dozens of the most dramatic moments and dialogue from this particular story, and rearrange them into something that looks a lot like a crowd-pleasing movie with a big heart and some fine dramatic performances.

Which, the last time I checked, is sort of the point of the thing.

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