Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.
I’m June Simms.
On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in a major league baseball game. A Hollywood movie that tells the story of this historic event is now opening across America. Today we talk about the movie, play music from it and remember the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.
The new film is called “42.” That was Jackie Robinson’s number when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Major League baseball officials retired the number in 1997. As a result, no player today can use it. Kelly Jean Kelly tells about how Jackie Robinson earned this rare honor.
In the 1940s, many Americans believed that people of different races should not mix. In much of the country, blacks and whites lived in separate areas and went to separate schools. Blacks who attempted to change the system risked being beaten or killed.
Blacks were not permitted to play with whites on professional baseball teams or in any other major sport. Blacks played in the Negro League, a professional baseball organization created in the 1920s.
Jackie Robinson grew up in Pasadena, California, near Los Angeles. He was one of five children in his family. He established himself as an athlete at an early age. He starred in several sports while attending the University of California at Los Angeles.
In 1941, Jackie Robinson joined the United States Army. He became an officer. But he was dismissed from the army because he objected to an order from a higher officer. Robinson had been ordered to move to the back of a bus because he was black. He refused.
Jackie Robinson wanted to play professional baseball. So, he joined the Negro Leagues.
Many of the best baseball players in the United States played in the Negro Leagues. The skills and records of black ball players were as good as white players in the major leagues.
Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs. It was one of the most famous teams in the Negro Leagues. But, he was not happy. White players made more money and had better working conditions.
In 1945, Jackie Robinson signed an agreement with Branch Rickey to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was president of the team. He wanted to find a black player who could deal with the insults and racial pressure he would face in the major leagues.
Rickey wanted a black player who would show restraint at all times. He thought Jackie Robinson was good enough as a player and strong enough as a person to succeed. He made Robinson promise that he would never show his anger on the baseball field. Robinson accepted that condition. He spoke later.
"I knew that I was going to be somewhat out front and perhaps, I would have to take a lot of abuse. I knew that this was bigger than any one individual and I would have to do whatever I possibly could to control myself."
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he played in his first Major League game in 1947. The Negro Leagues ended in the late 1950s because more and more blacks were playing in the major leagues, thanks to Jackie Robinson.
The great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., praised Robinson’s efforts, calling him, “a legend and symbol in his own time.”
Brian Helgeland wrote and directed the movie “42.” His earlier films include “L.A. Confidential,” “Conspiracy Theory,” and “Man on Fire.” His movies generally combine suspense, mystery and action.
“42” is quieter. But Brian Helgeland says he does not see a big difference. “I just thought of it all as filmmaking,” he says.
He also says it was Jackie Robinson’s story that got him interested in the project. He told reporters he was struck by Robinson’s bravery. As the filmmaker said, “you can write all the superhero movies there are in the world, and you wouldn’t come close.”
He noted that it was very important to get the right actor to play Jackie Robinson. He chose Chadwick Boseman instead of a more famous actor. Brian Helgeland said Boseman took artistic risks when he tried out for the part. “I thought that was brave, and he had to play a brave guy, so that was all I needed to know about him,” said the director.
Chadwick Boseman says Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, was a big help to him in playing the part. He met with her many times. The actor said it was not as much what she said to him that made the difference. He said he could sense the presence of the former star player around Rachel Robinson. “His spirit is still present with her. I could feel the edges of him,” he said.
Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey. Ford said he was not really interested in baseball growing up. He said this role was a study for him.
“That song is Take me Out to the Ballgame.” It is among the songs features on the “42” Soundtrack. Avi Arditti plays a few others for us.
There are a few songs about baseball in the new movie about Jackie Robinson. But the soundtrack also contains songs that symbolize the time period in which the baseball player made his breakthrough. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” is a 1940 hit from Duke Ellington.
“42” is also a love story. It shows the passionate and deeply loyal relationship between Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel. The movie makers included Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man” in the movie.
“Straighten Up and Fly Right” certainly could be a song about baseball. But it is actually a black folk tale that singer Nat King Cole’s father, a Christian clergyman, used in some of his services.
And, no movie about baseball and civil rights should be without this song, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball” performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra.