I'm thrilled that 42 is smashing baseball movie box office records like so many weak sliders, and seems poised to bypass Moneyball soon as the all-time champ. If anything, it may help pave the way for more (and better) baseball films, a genre decidedly lacking in unforgettable classics. This isn't necessarily the fault of filmmakers; real baseball has so much innate drama and embedded history that cinematic depictions tend to fall short.
42 fell way short for me. While the acting was serviceable and the CGI work that created the old late '40s ballparks astonishing, nearly everything else about Brian Helgeland's movie seemed to be encased in a cliche-stuffed, Hollywoodized, slow-motion nostalgia bubble that robbed Jackie Robinson's character of any nuance and framed the fight against bigotry in the simplest, black-and-white (so to speak) way imaginable. Again, for audiences either unaccustomed to baseball movies or only somewhat cognizant of the game's rich, complex history, 42 is a suitable primer for them, but having left the theatre feeling manipulated and unengaged by the story and characters, I was thirsty for something a lot more satisfying in the Jackie department.
And boy, did I ever find it.
There have been many books written about Jackie Robinson, but the three most heralded ones are Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel (1983, recently re-released in paperback), Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad (1998), and Opening Day by Jonathan Eig (2008). I had read Tygiel's book many years ago, felt like I had gotten all of the Robinson info I needed, and after seeing the excellent, Jackie-heavy 1940s chapter of Ken Burns' Baseball, I wasn't up for another book about the man.
But after seeing 42, I heard and read too many good things about Opening Day to resist it, and I'm glad I didn't. It is the perfect antidote to the sappy pablum of 42, and I can't imagine another Robinson book being better than this one.
Eig is a talented ex-Wall Street Journal writer who also founded the slickly-designed, sharply-written Chicagoside Sports Web site I've contributed a few pieces to. I had read his fine biography of Lou Gehrig called Luckiest Man some years back, but wasn't prepared for the simple, moving, gorgeously written prose that fills Opening Day. Just dive into his brief description of Ebbets Field, won't you?
"...a bird's nest of brick and steel, tucked inside one square city block. The ballpark had a sneaky kind of beauty. You turned a corner and there it was. The awning in front reminded you of your favorite soda fountain or candy shop, only this place was so much sweeter...The grandstand wrapped so snugly around the playing field you could see your favorite players' expressions, hear their shouts, share their jokes."
Not one word in Opening Day is wasted, not one line of dialogue is invented, and not one fact about Robinson was included unless it was verified. Like the movie, the book only recounts his first year in the major leagues, but the powerful impact he had on the game and society, and the terrible pressure he was under are felt a thousandfold.
Over and over, you learn incredible facts. Like Ebbets' attendance for Jackie's first game being roughly 5,000 short of capacity, because many white Brooklynites were afraid of sharing their seats with blacks. Like Willard Brown hitting the first home run by a black American Leaguer later that summer, only to have his Browns teammate Jeff Heath smash the bat he'd lent him into splinters when he returned to the dugout.
There are also great chapters about Dodger broadcaster Red Barber and New York Post writer Dick Young that illuminate the conflict each had about publicizing Robinson, and how they each dealt with that conflict in different ways. Throw in the shunning of Rachel Robinson for most of the season by the other players' wives, and what emerges is a portrait of Jackie that is both triumphant and painfully lonely.
The tale of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson one day in Cincinnati is also deeply researched. Eig never proves the incident didn't happen, but there's a fuzziness about people's accounts of it that sheds doubt about it occurring in 1947, and certainly makes the full feel-good treatment the movie gave it to be forced and borderline embarrassing. Eig's research reveals that Jackie's first trip to Ohio actually went extremely well, without incident, and in fact with black baseball fans flooding the Queen City to celebrate!
There's also a great climactic chapter about the '47 World Series, which the Dodgers lost valiantly to the Yankees in seven games and is completely omitted from the movie version. Robinson's thrilling style of play drove the Yankees and particularly catcher Yogi Berra to distraction, and the huge radio and early TV audiences helped make Jackie a national household name.
Have I left anything else out in pushing this remarkably good book? Oh yeah, Dixie Walker. The southern racist who signed a petition in the Dodgers' 1947 spring training clubhouse to not take the field with Robinson actually played the entire season with Jackie and grew to respect him. In the movie, he's portrayed in the most rudimentary of cracker terms because it suits Helgeland's simple view. Conversely, even though fellow southerner Kirby Higbe is sent packing to Pittsburgh and gives up a home run to Robinson in the Dodgers' pennant-winning game there, this is unmentioned in the book, but given a full, music-swelling, movie climax like something extracted from The Natural. In truth, the homer was just the first run of the game, a contest the Dodgers had to struggle to win with tough relief pitching, and Eig rightfully chose to ignore it.
The introduction of the first black major leaguer was a powerful, important event, but also a very complicated, multi-layered one. Robinson wasn't even the first, coming 63 years after Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldy briefly broke the American Association color barrier before being trounced out of the league. Still, baseball fans owe it to themselves to know the absolute truth about Jackie Robinson's first season. Opening Day, now in its fifth year of publication, is your season ticket.
Jeff Polman writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs. His just-completed endeavor is Mystery Ball '58, and he is currently preparing a new one set in 1938. His first such blog, "1924 and You Are There!" has been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.