On April 15th, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the man who broke down racial barriers by becoming the first black player in the MLB. A few years ago, a movie named after Jackie’s jersey number, 42, was released to an extremely positive critical response.
How much of the story was true and what was missing from the movie? We’ll find out in this week’s episode about the movie 42.
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Gene Hermanski made his Major League Debut as a 23-year-old outfielder on August 15th, 1943 for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He never made flashy headlines, but nonetheless, Hermanski had a solid career as he played for the Dodgers, Cubs and Pirates over his ten years in the Majors.
Perhaps one of the things history will remember Hermanski for most is something that he said to a teammate four years after breaking into the Majors himself. His teammate was having a tough inaugural season in 1947, and although many of the other players on the team didn’t like the rookie, Hermanski stood up for him.
The rookie? A man by the name of Jackie Robinson.
Robinson made history when he broke the racial barrier becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947.
Hermanski, Robinson’s teammate, quickly became a fan the speedy infielder.
In the 2013 movie named after Robinson’s number, 42, Hermanski’s quote is incorrectly attributed to Dodger’s shortstop Pee Wee Reese. In fact, it was Hermanski who said, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear number 42 — that way they won’t be able to tell us apart.”
Now Jackie Robinson’s number is the only number that’s officially retired by all of Major League Baseball, meaning no player can have the number 42. But in 2004, Major League Baseball took Hermanski up on his offer. Since that season, on April 15th of each year, every single one of the 750 active players in Major League Baseball wears the same number, Jackie’s number 42, in honor of the impact that Jackie Robinson had on the league — and the world.
It was almost 6 PM on January 31st, 1919 when Jerry and Mallie Robinson welcomed their fourth son, and fifth child, into the world.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who’s middle name was in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt, who died 25 days earlier, was born on a plantation near Cairo, Georgia – which is about 35 miles north of Tallahassee, Florida.
Jackie’s mother, Mallie, was a smart, hardworking woman who was doing all she could do better the life for her family. Jerry Robinson, on the other hand, wanted to move from their growing farm into the nearby town of Cairo. When Mallie refused, Jerry tried to put her out, even going so far as to have an affair with another married woman.
But Mallie refused to leave.
And so, only six months after Jackie was born the first major hurdle came into his life when his father, Jerry Robinson, went to visit his brother in Texas. He never returned.
For a while, Mallie managed the farm and five children on her own. But she needed a fresh start. So, when Jackie was about a year and a half, Mallie moved her family from Georgia to California.
With the help of a niece, Mallie bought a home for her young family in Pasadena. Growing up as the only black family in the neighborhood, Jackie was no stranger to racial torment. But seeing his mother’s strength, Jackie grew up learning how to stand up for his rights.
Needless to say, Jackie’s mother was a huge influence on his life.
Another huge influence on his life were his siblings, perhaps most notably his athletic older brother. Mack Robinson would make history of his own as he ended up falling just 0.4 seconds behind Jessie Owen in the 200-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, earning a silver medal behind Owens’ gold.
Growing up, it was his brothers Mack and Frank who pushed Jackie into sports. At John Muir high school in 1935, Jackie played shortstop and catcher in baseball, quarterback in football and guard in basketball.
Oh, and of course he ran track, too.
After high school, Jackie wanted to stay near his family so he decided to go to UCLA. In May 1939, Jackie’s best friend and brother, Frank, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Jackie was crushed. To cope with his grief, he poured his energy into school.
Again, Jackie showed his talent in athletics as he played for UCLA’s football, basketball, baseball and track teams. In his sophomore year at UCLA, Robinson met Rachel Isum and the two started dating.
When boy meets girl
As they started to get serious, Jackie and Rachel got engaged, but they knew they’d need to start thinking about their future. Rachel wanted to go to nursing school while Jackie didn’t see much of a future supporting a family by playing sports.
So in March 1941, with only months left to graduating, Robinson dropped out of UCLA to take a job as an assistant athletic director at a camp in California.
But his love for playing sports never wavered. So when Robinson had the chance to play semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears, he took advantage. It was a short stint, and Robinson ended up leaving Hawaii on December 5th, 1941.
Two days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — just a few miles from where Robinson had been days before.
As it did for everyone, the war changed Robinson’s life as he was drafted into the army in 1942. While in the army, Robinson was offered the chance to play baseball for the team at Fort Riley, Kansas.
But Robinson wasn’t willing to accept a team policy that would require him to sit if an opposing team didn’t want to play with a black player on the field. So he instead transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, where discrimination continued on.
The Army bus incident
On the evening of July 6th, 1944, Robinson’s military career came crashing down. He was a Second Lieutenant at the time, and he hopped on a bus with a fellow officer’s wife when the driver ordered him to sit on the back of the bus. Robinson refused because he knew the Army had outlawed segregation. When they reached their destination, the driver called the military police and had Robinson arrested.
Robinson stood on trial at a military court in August of 1944, where he faced a battery of charges that included public drunkenness — even though Robinson didn’t drink.
The Army couldn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing, and the panel of nine officers — all of whom were white — acquitted Robinson of the charges. It was because of this court marshaling that kept Robinson from going overseas when the rest of his battalion — the 761st Tank Battalion — went on to become the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II.
Life after the Army
After the trial, Robinson transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he met a former baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs were a team in the Negro American Leagues, and it was this meeting that led Robinson writing the Monarchs to ask for a tryout.
Not hearing anything right away, Robinson went about his life. He received an honorable discharge from the Army in November of 1944 and moved back to California to be with his then-fiancée, Rachel.
In 1945, Robinson’s life took a turn when the Monarchs offered him $400 a month to play for them. That’s about $5,300 in today’s dollars. After much thought, he accepted their contract and began his professional baseball career.
That year, Robinson batted .387 with five homers and 13 stolen bases in 47 games.
It was in 1945 that Robinson tried out for his first Major League Baseball team. The Boston Red Sox hosted a special tryout for four black players, one of whom was Jackie Robinson. Although the tryouts were nothing more than a formality, it gave Jackie a glimpse into life in the Majors.
And that glimpse didn’t look good.
Robinson left the tryouts utterly humiliated after he was subjected to an onslaught of racial slurs and bombardments. As history now shows, the Boston Red Sox ended up being the very last team to break the racial barrier when they finally promoted Pumpsie Green from their minor league organization in 1959.
Still, the tryouts were about to have a big impact on Robinson’s life because even though he wouldn’t make it on the Red Sox, other teams in the Majors were looking at breaking the racial barrier.
A historic contract for Major League Baseball
Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager Branch Rickey – who’s played by Harrison Ford in the movie 42 — ended up interviewing Robinson for a possible spot on the Dodgers’ roster.
But unlike in the movie, Rickey didn’t come up with Robinson on his own. In fact, many people considered a man named Josh Gibson to be the best black baseball player. Gibson had recently come off a season with an incredible .467 batting average with 55 homers in 137 games!
But it was Wendell Smith, a writer for the black weekly paper the Pittsburgh Courier, who discussed potential prospects with Rickey and ended up influencing him to pick Robinson. In 42, Smith is played by André Holland.
In the movie, Ford’s version of Rickey yells at Robinson in his office, asking Robinson what he’s going to do about the inevitable racial abuse. Referencing the incident on the bus in the Army, Rickey and Robinson had a heated debate that went on for over three hours on August 28th, 1945.
In 42, Robinson eventually stands up to Rickey — and this is true. Robinson said, “Are you looking for someone who is afraid to fight back?” to which Rickey replied that he was looking for a player “with enough guts not to fight back.”
Rickey knew life wouldn’t be easy for Robinson, but he also knew he could help the Dodgers win ballgames.
Robinson agreed to turn the other cheek to the inevitable racial onslaught, and Rickey made a verbal agreement to a contract of $600 a month — or about $8,000 a month in today’s dollars.
This agreement would prove to be easier said than done for Robinson.
Playing in the minors
But as is the case with most Major League Players, Robinson didn’t make the jump to the highest levels right away. For the 1946 season, Robinson would be playing for the Dodgers’ minor league team, the Montreal Royals.
Still, it was a historic moment and on November 1st, 1945, Robinson became the first black player in the International League since the 1880s when he signed a minor league contract to play for the Royals. Just like in the movie, representatives from the Dodgers and Royals gathered around as he signed the contract.
In 42, the Royals manager, a man by the name of Clay Hopper, is threatened by Rickey when he expresses racism toward Robinson. In truth, Hopper, who’s played by Brett Cullen in 42, asked Rickey to assign Robinson to any of the Dodgers’ other minor league teams. Rickey refused, and Robinson stayed on the Royals.
Hopper, who himself was opposed to integration, did his job despite his own racist tendencies and Robinson later reported that Hopper treated him well. That year, Hopper won Manager of the Year for all minor league teams.
Another incident in 42 occurs in Sanford, Florida when Robinson is greeted at home plate by a sheriff who utters all sorts of racial slurs as he threatens Robinson.
This actually happened, although the situation was a little different than in the movie. This was in spring training, so players from all over the Dodgers organization were together. Robinson wasn’t the only black player, as Rickey had just recently signed another man by the name of Johnny Wright in January of 1946.
Since the Dodgers didn’t have their own facility at the time, whether or not the team could play was really at the whim of the locals. So while it wasn’t at home plate, the local police chief at Sanford did threaten to shut down the Dodgers ability to play there if Robinson and Wright didn’t stop training with the team there.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers succumbed to pressure in this incident, and Robinson was sent about 40 miles to another training facility in Daytona Beach. And that certainly wouldn’t be the only time the Robinson was the victim of racism.
Another incident the movie didn’t show happened in Jacksonville, about 100 miles north of Daytona Beach, when the players showed up to the stadium to find out city’s Parks and Public Property director had ordered the stadium be padlocked shut.
Or there was the time just 25 miles from Sanford in DeLand, Florida, when a game was called off because of faulty electrical lighting. Except it was a day game, so no lights were even needed.
And that was just in spring training.
The fans in Montreal loved Robinson and so anytime the Royals came home after a road trip it offered him a small reprieve from the brutalities of it all.
Still, no one could deny Robinson knew how to play. Despite the adversities, he ended up leading the International League that year with a .349 batting average as he went on to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
And people came to see him play. In 1946, it was estimated that over 1,000,000 people went to games where he played. Considering this is minor league baseball in the mid-1940s just after World War 2 where spending money was tight for a lot of people, that’s huge.
But 1946 would be the only year in Montreal for Robinson.
Jackie makes history
Six days before Opening Day in 1947, the Dodgers called him up to the majors.
In 42, Dodger’s manager Leo Durocher is on the phone with Branch Rickey when he says he’d play an elephant if it could help him win games. This quote is a spin off what actually happened.
You see, Robinson’s promotion led to a petition among the Dodgers players who refuse to play with him. This actually happened, but just like in the movie it was Durocher – who’s played by Christopher Meloni in the movie – who stood up for him. Durocher learned of the petition against Robinson, and he wouldn’t have it. He gathered the team and said:
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays! What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
Of course, while Durocher’s rant helped stem the brewing mutiny, it didn’t make everything magically okay. And it didn’t help that, just like in the movie, Durocher ended up getting suspended for the entire 1947 season.
In the movie it seemed to be pinned solely on an affair Durocher was having. In truth, while Durocher did have an affair with actress Laraine Day, his suspension had more to do with his feud with the Yankee’s owner Larry MacPhail — who also happened to be a close friend with Happy Chandler, MLB’s commissioner.
So as Durocher eloped with Day, he was forced to watch from the stands as the Dodgers’ scout Burt Shotton took over as interim manager for the season.
And so it was, amidst swirling controversy all around that on April 15th, 1947, Jackie Robinson made history yet again as he became the first black player in the Major Leagues since racial segregation in the league began in the 1880s.
It was a historic, but tough, first season
In 42, one of the defining moments for Robinson happens when the Dodgers are visiting Philadelphia for a game with the Phillies. In the movie the Phillies manager, who’s played by Alan Tudyk, makes a scene as he spits racist slurs at Robinson.
This actually happened. Ben Chapman, the Phillies manager, led the onslaught as both he and the rest of the Phillies players hurled insults at Robinson from their dugout during a game on April 22nd, 1947.
Unlike in the movie, though, Robinson didn’t go into the dugout and bash a bat against the wall. As he promised he’d do, Robinson turned the other cheek.
Up until then, the Dodgers were torn — as evidenced by a petition they put together to stop playing with Robinson just a few weeks before. But thanks to Chapman’s slurs, the Dodgers players defended their teammate. It wasn’t until later that Branch Rickey recalled that moment as something that unified the Dodgers. He credited Chapman, saying he:
“Did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified thirty men.”
Of course, not all players hated Robinson. Lee Handley, the Phillies’ third baseman, offered some words of encouragement to Robinson — something that Robinson later noted as the first time an opposing player ever did so.
Another player who offered words of encouragement was Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who had heard plenty of his own racial slurs throughout his career.
One of the more momentous occasions in the movie happened when Dodgers’ shortstop Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson on the field in front of Reeses’ own family.
Again, this happened. It was the Dodgers’ first road trip of the season, and during the pre-game practice, Jackie Robinson was getting heckled by fans in Cincinnati. Reese, who was the Dodgers’ team captain at the time, heard the fans and went over to Robinson. After a brief chat, he put his arm around Robinson and the crowd went silent.
Later in the year, Robinson was joined in the Major Leagues by another black player. Larry Doby became the second black player in the Major Leagues when he joined the Cleveland Indians on July 5th, 1947. While this didn’t slow down the hardships, it did give Robinson someone else to talk to, and the two frequently talked via telephone throughout the season.
Jackie’s first season comes to a close
The movie 42 wraps up in Robinson’s first season when he faced Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller — a man who had purposely hit Robinson in the head earlier in the season.
In reality, Ostermueller — who was a lefty pitcher and not a righty as shown in the movie — hit Robinson in his left wrist. Ostermueller had studied Robinson’s batting technique, and realized that Robinson not only crowded the plate but he also lunged at pitches. This is something Rachel Robinson says at one point in the movie, as well. But in reality, Ostermueller’s inside pitch was a simple attempt to brush Robinson off the plate that ran in a little too far and didn’t have anything to do with race.
An article in the paper from the game on May 17th, 1947, Ostermueller’s foresight in how hitting Robinson with a pitch might be perceived gave some insight into how much tension there was at the time.
Here’s a quote from Ostermueller in the article:
“He didn’t give the pitcher much room. I didn’t like that at all because I want my half of the heart of the plate, and no batter, no matter who he is, will crowd me out of my share.
I told my wife the night before I pitched that I might have trouble with Robinson — that one of my pitches would hit him if he didn’t move back. I knew, too, some people would say it was intentional. It wasn’t at all, but in his first trip to the plate, I hit him. After that, he moved back a couple of inches and showed me some respect.”
This is an important distinction because the final showdown in 42 is between Robinson and Ostermueller, as they Dodgers play the Pirates with a chance to clinch the pennant.
During the at bat Ostermueller, who’s played by Linc Hand in the movie, sums up much of the racial tension throughout the movie as he says, “You don’t belong here. And you never will.”
In truth, there’s no proof he ever said this. And even more than that, all signs point to Ostermueller being a great pitcher who simply respected Robinson as a great hitter.
While the movie added some fiction at Ostermueller’s expense to help build the drama for the final showdown, the end result of the game was similar.
Just like in the movie, on September 17th, 1947, Robinson hit a home run off of Ostermueller. While Robinson didn’t jog around the bases in slow motion like he did in the movie, it had to have been a sight to behold. Robinson had a little pop in his bat, but he wasn’t really known for his power — the home run he hit against Ostermueller was just one of only 12 home runs he’d hit that year in 151 games.
In the movie, Hollywood made it seem like the home run won the game for the Dodgers. In reality, it didn’t, but it did put the team up 1-0 in a game they’d end up winning 4-2. It wasn’t a pennant-clinching game, either as that came the following day. Still, as anyone who follows sports knows any game you can win in a pennant race is incredibly important.
Robinson ended the 1947 season batting .297 with 175, including 31 doubles, 5 triples, 48 RBIs and scoring an impressive 125 runs of his own.
The Dodgers ended up losing in a tough seven-game World Series to the New York Yankees for the title.
Coincidentally, 1947 was the first year the Major Leagues decided to hand out a Rookie of the Year award for the single best rookie in both National and American Leagues. Robinson won it hands down.
Although the movie 42 ended with his first season, Robinson went on to have an amazing career.
Jackie’s historic career opened new paths for other stars
The next year, 1948, the racial pressure eased a little bit more as more black players joined the Major Leagues. One of the most notable being Satchel Paige, who became the oldest person to debut in the Major Leagues when he joined Larry Doby on the Cleveland Indians on July 9th, 1948 — two days after his 42nd birthday.
For Robinson, his career would lead him to become the highest paid Dodger in 1950 with a salary of $35,000 — about $465,000 in today’s dollars. He had a .328 batting average with 99 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. That year, The Jackie Robinson Story was released, a film where he played himself in Hollywood’s first telling of his motivating story.
While the Dodgers didn’t win the title in Robinson’s rookie year that’s portrayed in the movie, 8 years later Robinson and the Dodgers would have a rematch when they faced the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
Again the Series went to a full seven games, and even though Robinson didn’t play in game 7 due to a manager’s decision, this time, it was the Dodgers who came out on top — giving Robinson his first, and only, World Series championship.
Robinson played one more season, retiring from Major League Baseball on January 5th, 1957 at the age of 37.
With Rachel by his side, Robinson continued to break down racial barriers after his baseball career. He became the first black analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts and worked as the first black vice president of a major American corporation when he worked at the Chock Full o’Nuts company from 1957 to 1964.
Jackie Robinson made his final public appearance on October 15th, 1972, when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before game 2 of the World Series. Accepting a plaque in honor of the 25th anniversary of his Major League debut, Robinson said:
“I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Nine days later, on October 24th, 1972, Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack at his Connecticut home.
Three years later, Robinson’s final wish came true when the Cleveland Indians named the unrelated Frank Robinson as their manager — the first black manager in Major League Baseball.