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The Strike Zone

Reminders of Jackie Robinson's resonance in Brooklyn and beyond

Jackie Robinson plaque

It wasn't Flatbush, the area of Brooklyn where Ebbets Field once stood, but a movie theater on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn made for a most appropriate venue to view 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic, on Saturday afternoon. The theater stands just four blocks away from 215 Montague Street, where a plaque commemorates the Aug. 28, 1945 signing of Robinson's first professional contract. A key locale depicted in the movie, that address once held the Dodgers' business offices, where Branch Rickey set the wheels in motion to bring down Major League Baseball's longstanding color barrier. "Where the Dodgers made history, and Jackie Robinson changed America," reads the plaque, which I pass by nearly every week.

At Court Street, I was among a largely African-American audience teeming with teenagers raucously cheering the on-screen action, particularly when the movie hammered home pivotal points in its heavy-handed fashion. The tableau underscored what I'd sensed from skimming reviews of 42: the movie is less for me, a professional writer and student of baseball history able to poke holes in the narrative's omissions and oversimplifications, and more for those kids, and other casual fans less concerned with the subtleties steamrolled by a broadly-targeted Hollywood treatment.

In that theater, my reservations receded. I was simply happy to be among a crowd for whom Robinson's story had sprung to life some seven decades after the fact. Though the narrative is clumsy in spots, and particularly undersells the protagonist's fateful first encounter with Rickey in the latter's "Cave of the Winds," the story is made vivid by a reasonably nuanced performance from star Chadwick Boseman. He's bolstered by an outstanding supporting cast, particularly Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni's Leo Durocher and John C. McGinley's Red Barber on the side of the heroes, and Alan Tudyk's Ben Chapman on that of the villains. The cinematography is excellent, the special effects to recreate Ebbets Field and other contemporary ballparks are plausible, as is the actual baseball action.

The movie's release has been timed to coincide with the anniversary of Robinson's major league debut, and the day in his honor celebrated around the majors. April 15 marks the 66th anniversary of that momentous occasion, an opportunity to reflect upon Robinson's immeasurable courage in battling racism, and the impact his bold success had on this country. Just like the integration of the military, the Civil Rights movement and the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Robinson's arrival forced America to live up to its ideals of equality in ways that continue to resonate.

Robinson's story has resonated with me for almost as long as I've been watching baseball. I first learned about him during the 1978 World Series, when I was eight years old. My father asked me if I knew who the first black player in the majors was. I thought for a moment and took a wild guess, figuring the answer might be in front of me: "Dusty Baker?" I was already color-blind when it came to my baseball heroes; Davey Lopes was my first favorite Dodger, and I couldn't help but develop a soft spot for the outsized personality of Reggie Jackson, even though he wore the enemy pinstripes.

Dad set me straight regarding Robinson's pioneering role, but it was my Brooklyn-born paternal grandfather, Bernard Jaffe (1908-2000), who held the larger store of stories about Robinson's skill, courage and grace, and he shared those with me over the years while teaching my brother and me the game's fundamentals as well as its history. I remember him recounting an appropriately sanitized version of Dodger manager Durocher's reaction to the infamous petition circulated by Dixie Walker among Robinson's less enlightened teammates.

My grandfather had been more than inclined to pull for Robinson, for he had battled prejudice himself, and had witnessed firsthand the way that sports could strike a blow against oppression. A good enough ballplayer at the University of Maryland that he was offered a professional contract by the Washington Senators, he instead chose a more complicated path, and was long gone from Brooklyn by the time Robinson broke through. Unable to afford the exorbitant cost of a stateside medical school, and stymied by the quota system which limited the number of Jews admitted, he saved up money working as a pharmacist and hustling pool, and managed to start his medical studies in — of all places — Hitler's Germany, at the University of Göttingen. After a year of med school, he was advised to leave for his own safety, but not before managing to wrangle a ticket to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he saw part of Jesse Owens' history-making track and field triumph in the face of the Nazis. "I watched Jesse Owens win two events with Hitler and his storm troops in the stands," he wrote in his last letter to me, circa 1998 or 1999. "I have never forgotten that hectic event."

Bernard Jaffe would go on to transfer to the University of Vienna, where he met Clara Gottfried (1912-2006), a woman four years his junior but a year ahead of him in medical school. They married on March 29, 1938, and with the Nazi situation in Vienna worsening, planned their exit without waiting around for him to receive his diploma; a classmate picked it up along with his own, and escaped by walking over the Alps into Switzerland. They reached the U.S. on July 15, 1938, but Clara's parents and most of her extended family didn't make it out; they wound up dying in concentration camps. After bouncing around the states as an Army doctor, Bernie, Clara and my father had settled in Walla Walla, Wash., by the time of Robinson's debut, following his exploits via newspaper and radio if not actually getting to see much of him on television, at least until his later years.

It's that three-generation connection to Dodger history that I bring to Jackie Robinson Day. I surround it with an annual ritual, watching the "Bottom of the 6th" segment of Ken Burns' Baseball and listening to Vin Scully's broadcast of the Dodgers game. Burns' miniseries is never stronger than when it retells Robinson's story through the voices of wife Rachel Robinson, former Negro League teammate Buck O'Neill, Red Barber, author (and Sports Illustrated founding staffer) Robert Creamer, historian John Thorn and others; watching it just hours after 42, it provided welcome context as well as a perfunctory fact-check on points regarding Eddie Stanky's relationship to Robinson (in the movie, he spurns the petition, while Burns' documentary and other sources suggest he signed), and Pee Wee Reese's arm-around-Robinson moment (Barber says it's true, though many sources place it in a different year or city).

As for Scully, while he wasn't a firsthand witness to Robinson in 1947, he began his career with the Dodgers in 1950, early enough to see the majority of his stellar major league career. Hearing him retell stories of his interaction with Robinson is a delight. One in particular stands out, for it clarifies MLB's oft-misunderstood decision to allow all players to wear number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. As transcribed by the Sons of Steve Garvey blog from Scully's 2011 recounting, wearing 42 isn't just an anodyne gesture of unity, it's a gesture of defiance in the face of the forces that tried to defeat Robinson.:

Told a story last year. It's only worthwhile on Jackie Robinson Day. At the time, it was a very funny crack made in a Dodger clubhouse in Cincinnati… Jackie had received some serious threats against his life, so that when the Dodgers came to Cincinnati, the old Crosley Field, they had riflemen on the rooftops and on the roof of the big laundry building back in left field. It was serious.

And before the game, the Dodgers held a meeting in the clubhouse. And everybody, understandably, was tense. This was really serious. And they had an outfielder named Gene Hermanski, who suddenly broke the silence by saying, "I've got it!"

And everybody stopped and said, "What?"

And Hermanski said, "We'll confuse them. We'll all wear number 42!"

Well, everybody broke up and it released the tension and they went out and played. But little did we know there would be a day where indeed, like Gene Hermanski, we'll all wear number 42.

As with the Reese moment, the exact details have blurred via various retellings of the story, though they agree on the point that something along those lines did happen. Which doesn't mean that separating fact from fiction isn't important when it comes to Robinson's story; it is, but not necessarily at the entry level — where the inspiration to pick up a bat and glove may have its largest impact. For those more interested in exploring the details, a  multitude of great books awaits, running the gamut from scholarly research to oral history — Arnold Rampersand's Robinson bio, Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer, Peter Golenback's Bums, Jonathan Eig's Opening Day and more.

There's fact that needs separating from fiction when it comes to MLB's interpretation of its own standing with regards to African-Americans, and Bud Selig's assembly of a task force devoted to reversing the decline of their participation in baseball, but that's a story for another day. For now it will suffice that April 15 is a day to celebrate not only Robinson's achievement but also the game's increasing diversity. His arrival carved a niche not just for one supremely talented non-white player, it set MLB on a course towards becoming a true meritocracy in which the world's best players could take the field, regardless of skin color. That's an incredible legacy, and if 42 helps extend it further by inspiring more kids to take up the game, so much the better.

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