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April 16, 2013

Skewed Left

The Historical Quirks of "42"

by Zachary Levine

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Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson hit right-handed, and for preserving historical accuracy in translation to money-making film, that’s an awfully good place to start.

Where 42, the Jackie Robinson story, meanders from there in its devotion to the actual baseball events of 1945-47 is fairly close to the truth line. There are of course the controversies over some of the perhaps apocryphal tales, like whether Pee Wee Reese ever put his arm around Jackie Robinson on the field in Cincinnati.

But in terms of the recorded baseball events—timing of team vs. team matchups, correctness of players, etc., the movie does fairly well. The baseball scenes and the depiction of old ballparks are terrific too.

After seeing it in the first showing the day it came out, I found myself in somewhat of a research vortex over at Baseball-Reference.com, which has the accurate, non-Hollywoodized version of the 1947 season nailed. What I found there and in some subsequent library research was that the movie did lead us astray on brief occasion, and even when it didn’t, there are just some cool little baseball things that a two-hour movie mostly about race would have no time or real reason to address.

So starting with the only major correction in the baseball data, here are some things about Jackie Robinson’s 1947 that may do a little bit of spoiling but tell us more of the baseball side of 42.

1. Jackie Robinson didn’t hit a home run in the game that clinched the pennant because there was no game that clinched the pennant.

Every baseball movie needs its big moment at the end, whether it’s Roy Hobbs inducing a shower of electrical debris or Henry Rowengartner getting the strikeout with the floater.

42 had Robinson’s home run against the Pirates in a game that clinched the pennant for the Dodgers and had the New York Times running on “A1” a nearly full banner headline about the Bums. How overly dramatic was the home run moment? Our own Tater Trot Tracker, Larry Granillo, clocked his rounding the bases to profound musical accompaniment at nearly three minutes.

Almost everything about the scene was accurate. Robinson did indeed hit a home run in the game at Pittsburgh, and it was against Fritz Ostermueller, the pitcher who had beaned him earlier in the movie/season. Here’s the box score from the game of Sept. 17, 1947 at Forbes Field.

Small problem, though: that game didn’t clinch anything.

Here’s the actual headline in the New York Times from the day after: “Dodgers Move Within 2 Games of Flag by Beating Pirates While Cards Lose.” (Click to expand.)

With eight games left to play, it was as good as clinched, but the actual story was far less dramatic. After losing three games in a row, the Dodgers would happen to clinch some five days later, when the Cardinals lost to the Cubs on a Dodgers off-day.

While the front page treatment looked good on film, the Times readership was treated on that week’s covers to much more on the death of former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the march of communism in China than they were on the Dodgers.

2. The Dodgers still liked to celebrate early.

While Robinson’s winning the 1947 Rookie of the Year Award—the first ever given out—was mentioned in the epilogue of 42, he was actually presented the award during the season. He won the award on September 19 of that year with seven games remaining, in which he’d go 2-for-14 with plenty of rest given the impending World Series.

But even the fans celebrated early. After the Pittsburgh trip, though nothing was clinched, more than 2,000 fans came out to meet the team train and celebrate what was all but a sure thing.

Heralded no. 1 Dodgers Fan Shorty Laurice’s five-piece band got a chance to play and used that chance, according to the New York Herald-Tribune of Sept. 20, 1947, on this gem.

 I come from Brooklyn
Brooklyn is out of Dis Woild
Almost every one there is Hard Berled
We just hoid from Congress
We hardly can wait
They’re going to make Brooklyn
The forty-ninth state
I come from Brooklyn
Because Brooklyn is a great place to come from.

The paper called the song “far from Homeric” but one that “deserved to be printed.”

Possibly nothing has ever deserved it more.

3. While the Rookie of the Year award is now named after Robinson, he was no lock to win it.

The actual award got very little press at the time, possibly because of its novelty. The 1947 season was the first one in which it was awarded, and it was a major league-wide award rather than the AL and NL versions that would be spawned two years later.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, there were five vote-getters that year, and of those, Robinson had the third-best season by wins above replacement. The top four in vote totals:

Player

Team

Position

Stats

WAR

Votes

Jackie Robinson

BRO

1B

.297/.383/.427, 12 HR, 29 SB in 151 G

3.1

129

Larry Jansen

NYG

SP

21-5, 2.16 ERA, 57 BB, 104 K in 248 IP

5.0

105

Spec Shea

NYY

SP

14-5, 3.07 ERA, 89 BB, 89 K in 179 IP

3.0

67

Ferris Fain

PHA

1B

.291/.414/.423, 7 HR, 4 SB in 136 G

4.0

43

Applying WAR to the discussion is of course an anachronism, but it’s easy to look at the differences between Robinson and the hitter who finished a long way out and the pitcher who may have been statistically the most deserving.

Robinson had better counting stats than Fain, who wouldn’t have Robinson’s Hall of Fame career but would go on to make five All-Star teams for the A’s and White Sox. Fain was one of the game’s best at drawing walks, which was probably underappreciated, and it didn’t help his vote total that his team finished fifth in the AL in 1947.

As for Jansen, who probably would have finished second in NL Cy Young voting to Ewell Blackwell of the Reds had there been such a league-specific award, it would have been unusual (in retrospect) if he’d won.

Only 36 of the 128 Rookie of the Year winners have been pitchers, and in the first five years of its issuance (eight awards since it was split into leagues in 1949), Don Newcombe was the only pitcher to win the award despite pitchers’ being statistically deserving multiple times.

Robinson didn’t win by a landslide, but the fact that he did win gave baseball a great way to honor him fittingly in 1987, when the award was rechristened in his name.

Speaking of awards, Bill Parker of SB Nation notes in this piece some of Robinson’s later-career votes where he may have been underappreciated.

4. Robinson wasn’t the Dodgers’ only black player in 1947.

As the epilogue scrolled through the “Where are they now?”-type elements for the central characters of 42, it mentioned that fellow African-Americans Newcombe and Roy Campanella would join Robinson in Brooklyn in the coming years.

However, not depicted was Dan Bankhead, who was the first black major-league pitcher after the shattering of the color barrier and joined Robinson in his first season.

Unlike Robinson, Bankhead was pitching in the Negro Leagues in 1947, when he was signed and brought to the Dodgers in late August as a reliever. Bankhead didn’t have the distinguished major-league career that Robinson or American League pioneer Larry Doby did—he appeared on and off for three seasons in the majors with a 6.52 ERA.

Yet he was a star in black baseball and an important figure in the very gradual integration of the game.

5. The suspension of Leo Durocher wasn’t exactly as portrayed in the movie, but it had a big impact on Robinson as a player.

In a piece at BP on Monday, Larry Granillo wrote deftly about Robinson’s appearance in Boys’ Life Magazine talking about his status as one of the game’s great bunters. He led the league with 28 sacrifices in his rookie season and beat out 14 more for hits.

It may not have been the best use of his talent, though it certainly wasn’t the worst given all the hits he got out of it. Either way, Durocher’s suspension by Major League Baseball had an effect on it, because Durocher didn’t bunt Robinson.

Durocher returned to manage the first 73 games of the 1948 season. Robinson played in 65 of those games and had only two sacrifice bunts. He had six after Durocher’s firing, and the next year, again under Branch Rickey’s manager-on-call Burt Shotton, he repeated as league leader and still won his MVP award.

In the movie, we learn during an animated phone call between Rickey and commissioner Happy Chandler that Durocher had been suspended for marital infidelity, as the CYO had threatened to stop purchasing tickets. In reality, the suspension was exceedingly complicated, originally reported rather vaguely as having to do with gamblers being invited into the clubhouse but fleshed out later in a Sports Illustrated piece as being a little bit of everything in a public feud with the Yankees.

Durocher may have been good for Robinson as a player even though they were only together for a very unsuccessful half-season.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Jackie Robinson,  History,  Movie,  42

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