Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, says '42' hits home
By Steven Zeitchik
Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Above all else, Rachel Robinson remembers the kissing.
When the taunts at the ballpark grew too fierce and the naysayers too loud, her husband, Jackie, would come home to their Brooklyn apartment and the couple would try to block out the world.
“So many people are curious about how we were at home, thinking that we brought all the anger and chaos in there with us,” Rachel Robinson, 90, said last week as she perched behind a desk at the gleaming offices of the education foundation she runs in lower Manhattan. “But we had a pledge to each other that we were going to try to keep the house a haven. Someplace safe. Someplace we didn't have to replay the mess outside.”
That “mess,” and the need to take sanctuary from it, hit its peak in spring 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers' No. 42 became the first black player in Major League Baseball. More than 65 years later, Rachel Robinson vividly recalls the death threats her husband faced from fans, the teammates who refused to play with him, the managers around the game who said he didn't belong — the “whole experiment,” as she and her husband, who died in 1972 at age 53, called his crossing into the all-white league.
Though that breakthrough transformed professional sports, and the saga was more dramatic than countless other ballpark films, Rachel Robinson resisted a Jackie Robinson movie for decades. None of the producer pitches she heard over the years could do the story justice, she felt; nothing captured what the young couple really endured.
But a few years ago, Robinson sold the rights to financier and producer Thomas Tull of Legendary Pictures (“The Dark Knight”) and gave her blessing to Warner Bros. studio and writer-director Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential.”
At once a sociology-minded period piece and gentle character study, “42” re-creates in large-scale, studio-worthy scope the events of Robinson's first season with the Dodgers, as well as his private life.
In 1947, Robinson batted .297 and was named the National League rookie of the year. But “42” is less interested in the player's skills than his crucibles — a Montreal Royals minor-league game in which he responded to a hateful pitcher by cannily baiting him into a balk, or a Philadelphia Phillies contest in which Robinson was harshly taunted by Ben Chapman, the team's segregationist manager, but held his tongue.
Rachel Robinson said she warmed to the idea of a movie about her husband — always Jack, never Jackie — as the march of time and integration left a new generation increasingly ignorant of those days before the civil-rights era. Though her memories of the period remain sharp, a film, she thought, offered the opportunity to educate people growing up in Barack Obama's America about those charged days, when black fans in the South were seated separately beyond the outfield wall, and some restaurants wouldn't seat her or her husband at all.
“I was getting older, and I really wanted kids to know who Jack was and to think about what they can do with their own lives,” said Robinson, who met her husband when the two were studying at UCLA.
And while she might not put it that way, the film also offered a more personal opportunity for Robinson: the chance to relive a relationship that ended too soon.
“After Rachel saw the movie for the first time, I said, ‘What did you think?'” recalled “42” writer-director Helgeland. “And she said, ‘I loved how much we kissed.' And then she got emotional. It was the only thing she ever said to me about the finished film. And it hit me: Her take-away from the whole thing was that she got to see her husband one more time.”
The movie stars the Brooklyn-raised, Oxford-educated newcomer Chadwick Boseman, at once warm and stoic, pioneering and workmanlike, as Jackie Robinson, while the role of Rachel — Jackie's emotional ballast and new bride — is played with appropriate steadfastness by Nicole Beharie (“Shame”). A lively, cigar-chomping Harrison Ford portrays Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, conveying a noble opportunism as he breaks baseball's color barrier for reasons both moral and capitalistic. Hamish Linklater embodies young pitcher Ralph Branca, one of Robinson's few welcoming teammates.
Rachel Robinson was an essential counterbalance to her husband, say those who knew them, including Branca, now 87 and the last surviving member of the '47 Dodgers.
“She would cool him down if he needed to be cooled down and lift him up if he needed a boost,” said Branca, who served as an important resource for both Helgeland and Linklater. “People don't understand how important that was to a man who was not allowed to show his emotions.” An insurance agent for more than 40 years in Westchester County, N.Y., Branca said he liked that Linklater came to see him, and he offered the young actor some advice. “I told him to get plastic surgery so he could be more handsome,” he quipped.
Turning serious, Branca said he felt there was a need for the new film. “People talk about it like it's the Civil War, like it's ancient history. But everything that happened that season happened in our times.”
On April 15, Rachel Robinson will make what these days is a rare trip to a baseball game, for Jackie Robinson Day, a tradition the league started in 2004 to honor his legacy. On that date — Robinson's first in the majors — all players wear the number 42. Rachel Robinson will be on hand at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles after attending the Hollywood premiere of “42.”
A longtime nurse, she's been doing work for the Jackie Robinson Foundation for four decades, launching into it after a string of tragedies — son Jackie Jr. was killed in an automobile accident in 1971, her husband was felled by a heart attack in 1972 and her mother died the following year. Starting the foundation, she said, was as much personal therapy as social good.
In her office, memorabilia and photos line the walls and shelves. She is happy to show off some of them, getting a little emotional as she does. But she catches herself.
Robinson said she doesn't have much time for nostalgia, just as she didn't want to harbor anger 66 years ago.
“It only destroys you, so I let it go,” she said. “I remember the time at Florida (for spring training) when Jack and I first got there, and we went to a restaurant that wouldn't serve us. We were very angry. And we went home to the little room we were staying in, in Daytona, and we sat on the bed and then we thought, ‘This is so ridiculous.' And then we fell off the bed laughing. No one outside would believe we could laugh at that. But that was our survival mechanism. We had to laugh.”
Steven Zeitchik is a writer for the Los Angeles Times.
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