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"42" - A Rogues Gallery

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Alan Tudyk portraying Phillies manager Ben Chapman in "42"
Alan Tudyk portraying Phillies manager Ben Chapman in "42"
Warner Bros. Entertainment

I don't know about you, but when I see a movie that's based on some actual historical event, I just can't wait to get home afterward and consult Wikipedia to see what really happened. If the truth doesn't quite match the movie ... well, let me give you an odd example.

One of my favorite movies last year was actually a documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. It's about a Dylanesque singer-songwriter who made a couple of really good records in the early 1970s. Nobody cared much, though, and the artist, a Detroiter named Sixto Rodriguez, gave up the music business and just did a bunch of other things for a few decades. Unbeknownst to him, his records were huge hits in South Africa. Finally, some enterprising South African fans found Rodriguez, and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts.

In the movie, there is a period of approximately 30 years in which Rodriguez has zero success as a musician, and has no idea that anyone in the world cares about his music. It's a great story.

It's just not completely true. Rodriguez's records were also beloved in Australia, and he toured there in 1979 and 1981. Which the movie doesn't mention at all.

Filmmakers must make innumerable choices. Picasso supposedly defined art as "a lie that tells the truth," and there's undoubtedly plenty of truth in Searching for Sugar Man. As for the truth ... well, that's something that only you, with whichever facts you care to marshal, may judge.

The new movie about Jackie Robinson tells many lies, as all such movies do. The great majority of people who see 42 will assume that it's telling the truth, because the great majority of viewers won't bother to marshal any facts that would suggest anything else.

I don't actually want to get into all the lies today. I do want to write about 42's villains, and there are more than a few.

There are plenty of anonymous villains -- the filling-station attendant, the desk agent at the New Orleans airport, the sheriff in Florida, the fan in the stands who sets a terrible example for his son -- all of whom typify the sort of casual racism that Jackie Robinson and millions of others faced every damn day in that era. I will note that most of these incidents are rooted in specific things that really happened to Robinson, or were said to have happened.

But the movie also features some distinctly non-anonymous villains; none of them are alive today, but most of them probably have descendants walking among us, and I think it's worth telling a bit more of their stories. So I'd like to run through those I can remember, roughly in the order in which they show up.

Clay Hopper
Hopper was Jackie's first manager in Organized Baseball, with the Montreal Royals. Hopper was from Mississippi, and not favorably disposed toward African-Americans. His complaint in the movie to Branch Rickey is rooted in fact; so is Rickey's no-nonsense response. It's clear in the movie that Hopper grows to respect Robinson over the course of their season together, but there's no time in the movie for much about that actual season, in which Robinson played brilliantly and the Royals won the Little World Series. At the conclusion of the Royals' victory over the Louisville Colonels in that series, Robinson would later write, Hopper came to him, held out his hand and said, "You're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. It's been wonderful having you on the team."

Ben Chapman
Chapman, the Phillies' manager in '47, will forever be famous for hurling a stream of racially inflected invective toward Jackie when the Phillies first visited Brooklyn. Chapman was so rough that it actually became a big story that embarrassed the Phillies. When the Dodgers visited Philadelphia, Chapman sent a request to the visitors' clubhouse: Would Robinson pose for a photo with Chapman, for the benefit of the press? The result was this famous image, which is replicated in 42.

Which isn't to suggest that Chapman, from Alabama, had changed his attitude. Freddy Schmidt, who pitched for the Phillies, later recalled that as Chapman and Robinson parted, Chapman said, "Jackie, you know, you're a good ballplayer, but you're still a nigger to me."

This would be Ben Chapman's legacy: a pretty good player turned failed manager who will symbolize forever the broad-based resistance, among the other teams. Which is fair, to a point. Hey, somebody has to take the hit. But it's worth remembering that Chapman was not alone. It's also worth remembering that lives continue, and Ben Chapman's continued for another 46 years.

In 1985, Chapman managed in an old-timer's game at Birmingham's ancient Rickwood Field. The other team's manager was Piper Davis, a great Negro League player. My friend Allen Barra was there, and wrote that after the game, Chapman and Davis "laughed and slapped each other on the back. I was surprised, to say the least."

Several years later, while working on a book on Rickwood Field, I asked the former owner of the Birmingham Barons, Art Clarkson, about that night. "All I can say," he told me, "is that Ben really was a different man in his later years—he acknowledged the error of his old ways. I remember telling him that I was going out to a school in a black neighborhood to talk to kids about baseball, and he volunteered to go along. He talked to the kids and really seemed to enjoy it. To tell you the truth, I don't think he had had the opportunity to do something like that before. I think he discovered something in himself that he didn't know was there."

Well, as my mother used to say, just when you think you know someone. Chapman died in 1993, age 84. Because of the success of 42—its opening weekend was the highest of any baseball movie ever—the Ben Chapman portrayed in the movie will certainly define his image in baseball history. And that's fair. But it's just possible that near the end of his life Chapman did change—or as we say today, he evolved. At least some people who knew him in his later years thought he did, and I think it's fair, also, that in some tiny corner of baseball history that Ben Chapman is be remembered as well.

Well said. I will also note in passing that Ben Chapman was an exceptionally handsome fellow. The actor who plays him in 42 isn't bad-looking at all ... but while in most cases the casting director clearly looked for actors who bear real likeness to their characters, it seems pretty clear to me that a different priority was used when casting Chapman.

Herb Pennock
Pennock, who won 240 games as an American League pitcher, took over as general manager of the Phillies in 1944; that same year, he changed the name of the team to BLUE JAYS (though not wholeheartedly, as PHILLIES continued to appear across the front of the club's jerseys). Over the next few years, Pennock would acquire many of the players who would later compose the pennant-winning Whiz Kids of 1950.

In 1947, though, he called Branch Rickey and said that if the Dodgers showed up in Philadelphia with Jackie Robinson, the possibility of race riots at the ballpark would force the Phillies to forfeit. Of course, Rickey -- and this is in the movie, too -- called his bluff, and the games in Philadelphia would go off without a hitch, as they would everywhere else around the National League.

Pennock would not be around to enjoy the fruits of his team-building efforts. In 1948, just a few weeks before the start of spring training, Pennock collapsed in New York City, dead of a cerebral hemorrhage; he was only 53. The Phillies would be the last National League team to integrate, a full decade after Jackie Robinson's arrival.

Enos Slaughter
Later in the movie, Jackie's stretching for a throw at first base and is spiked badly by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter (naturally, a Southerner). In the movie, Jackie needs eight stitches and makes it clear afterward that Slaughter spiked him deliberately. In real life, Jackie wasn't injured badly enough to leave the game; also in real life, he'd been spiked by another Cardinal two days earlier and badly gashed on the foot.

At the time, Slaughter said, "I've never deliberately spiked anyone in my life. Anybody who does, don't belong in baseball." One of Jackie's teammates said, "How in the hell could Slaughter hit him way up on the side of the leg like that unless he meant to do it?"

Some decades later, Slaughter penned an obscure autobiography, and devoted more than a page to this incident. A snippet:

Now, if you are covering second base, it's okay to have your foot square in the middle of the bag, because on a close play the runner has to slide. But, it's a different situation at first. Anyway, the throw to Robinson was low. He had to step forward to scoop up the throw, and when he stepped back on the base for the putout, his foot was right in the middle of the bag... I had always played by the rule that the basepaths belong to the runner, and I don't believe I have to apologize for not making an exception to this for anyone. On this occasion, my spikes clipped his ankle.

Robinson wasn't seriously injured. In fact, he didn't even leave the game. I didn't really think a whole lot about it at the time because I knew that Robinson wasn't hurt. When Kurowski homered to end the game in the 12th, I went to the locker room happy.

Soon, though, I was angry. It was the trash that some writers put into their accounts of this so-called "incident" that made my blood boil. They claimed I had spiked Robinson deliberately...

Now, I'd spiked a lot of guys that I hadn't intended to because they had left their foot blocking the basepaths. The color of Robinson's skin was the farthest thing from my mind while I was trying to beat out the low throw to first base. Still, it was claimed that I had cut Robinson because he was black.

Aside from this passage, Slaughter has very little to say about Robinson or black players generally, except to mention that he knows absolutely nothing about the Cardinals' supposed threat of a strike in 1947, in response to integration. Slaughter did manage Billy Williams in the minors, and describes Williams as "a quiet young man who often got homesick... After all those great years he ended up having for the Cubs, I was glad to see the writers finally vote him into the Hall of Fame."

Slaughter coached at Duke for a few years, but spent most of his last few decades farming tobacco back home in North Carolina.

The Petitioneers
There's a fantastic scene in 42, by all accounts generally authentic, wherein manager Leo Durocher, clad in his bathrobe, hauls his players out of bed and tells them in no uncertain terms that if Jackie Robinson is good enough to help the club win the pennant and make some extra money then by God he's going to play.

This incident comes after a number of Dodgers, most (but not all) from the South, begin to make some noises about refusing to play with a black teammate. In the movie, there's a petition; in real life, it's not abundantly clear that an actual petition ever existed. But star outfielder Dixie "The People's Cherce" Walker did write a letter to Branch Rickey, and it's clear that some of his teammates felt the same way, most notably South Carolina's Kirby Higbe and Texas's Bobby Bragan. Oh, and non-Southerner Carl Furillo, too. At least by some accounts.

Ultimately, Walker, Higbe, and Bragan asked to be traded. Rickey accommodated Higbe -- the Dodgers' leading pitcher in '46 -- later in the season. Rickey traded Walker to the Pirates after the season, and got quite a nice haul in return. And Bragan would stick around, later enjoying a long career in baseball as a manager in the majors and the minors.

When Robinson opened the '47 season with the Dodgers, Bragan wanted nothing to do with him. From Bragan's excellent autobiography:

We took trains on road trips in those days, and you spent more time with your teammates. I would say Jackie was immediately accepted by most of his teammates, maybe 20 out of 25. Pee Wee Reese, who was from Kentucky, was a close friend of Jackie's from the beginning. But the five of us who'd been called in by Mr. Rickey kept our distance. Oh, I wasn't belligerent. I didn't call Jackie names or insult him in that way. I respected his ability, and it was clear to me like it was to everyone else that he was the best player we had. But on those first train rides I can guarantee you I wasn't going to sit at the same dining table with Jackie or even have a conversation with him...

Jackie put on his uniform, that old flannel uniform we used to wear, and I saw he had number 42. My number, reversed. Somehow, even that stung me a little.

But before long, Bragan came to like and respect Robinson, and the two became friends.

I always say that of all the people I've known in baseball, I respect Branch Rickey the most. Oh, I had great admiration for Leo Durocher and Whitlow Wyatt and many more, but above all there was Branch Rickey. I'd have to put Jackie up there on top with him. Mr. Rickey was a genius, and Jackie Robinson is the best proof of that genius. Thanks to the two of them, I was able to overcome my racial prejudice.

Here's what Kirby Higbe wrote in his memoir:

We didn't have anything personal against Jackie Robinson or any other Negro. As Southerners who had played ball up North for several years, we had heard a lot of talk about how we abused and mistreated Negroes down South, and we knew we never had. We had never had any race riots or trouble with Negroes in my neck of the woods down South, but I had seen and heard of plenty of trouble in Detroit, New York, and St. Louis.

Higbe opened the season with the Dodgers, of course, but continued to make it clear that he wasn't happy.

I got more than a thousand letters from people down South calling me a nigger-lover, wanting to know why was playing ball with a nigger, telling me I ought to quit playing baseball and come home rather than play with a nigger, etc. Those letters didn't have any effect on my decision. In fact, I wrote a few of the people back and told them I would be glad to quit and come back if they could get me a job where I could make as good a living as I was making playing ball on the same club with Jackie Robinson. I never got an offer.

If I could have looked ahead and seen all the change that was coming, I think I still would have done what I did. I was brought up a Southerner, and I was brought up to stand by what you said and believed in even if you were the last one standing there.

Higbe would be traded to Pittsburgh just a few weeks after the season, and after '47 his arm was largely dead. Later he led a checkered life, which including being convicted of smuggling pills to prisoners while working as a guard. He does say some complimentary things about Jackie Robinson in his book, but saves his kindest words for another ...

I think there was one man who did more for the future Negro ballplayers than Jackie did, and that was Roy Campanella. He was next to Jackie as a competitor, but Roy showed baseball and all the Negroes that came after that you could be a competitor and a gentleman at the same time.

I was in New York a few years ago and went out to see Roy. It breaks your heart to see a big strong man like that sitting in a wheelchair, almost helpless. But he was in good spirits and didn't complain about the bad break that paralyzed him for life and cut his great career short. Baseball cannot possibly forget the big man.

As for Walker, he never wrote a memoir; nor, as near as I can tell, was he ever interviewed at length before his death in 1982. There's nothing here in my library, anyway. And the fact that Rickey traded him after the '47 season has always been submitted as proof of Walker's continuing prejudice. However, it might just be more proof that Rickey was a shrewd judge of talent, as Walker's major-league career ended just two years later.

According to Roger Kahn's book, The Era, Walker wanted out of Brooklyn because he thought having a black teammate would hurt his business back home. Many years later, he told Kahn, "That's why I started that thing. It was the dumbest thing I ever did in my life. Would you tell everybody that I'm deeply sorry?"

It does seem that almost everyone closely associated with Jackie Robinson came to respect and admire him. And that most of those who were initially so resistant to playing with him later came to regret it.