Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Jackie Robinson movie impresses Rays

Settling in for a recent Tampa screening of the new movie 42, the life story of Jackie Robinson, Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer turned to his wife, Soot, and a friend and talked about his days as a teammate of the historymaking Brooklyn Dodger.

One of the things Zimmer remembered most was how Robinson would sit on the bench and boast that if he got in a pickle (that's a rundown, kids) he knew he'd be able to get out of it.

"I barely got it out of my mouth, and that's one of the first things you see (in the movie), him getting out of a pickle," Zimmer said.

For Zimmer, that was a promising sign that the movie, which comes out today and will be at theaters throughout the bay area, would provide an accurate narrative of Robinson's remarkable story in becoming the first black player in the majors in 1947.

"It was good," Zimmer said. "I thought it was right on target."

The Brian Helgeland film has gotten rave reviews, including from Robinson's widow, Rachel, and first lady Michelle Obama, for being both entertaining and educational.

Rays ace David Price, for one, said he knew the basics of the story but not much about Robinson's personality, the level of harassment, racism and bigotry he faced on and off the field, and how he handled it, all of which is documented in the film.

"He was the guy that broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and that's very special," Price said. "It takes a guy with a ton of courage to be able to do what he did. Honestly, I don't know if I would be able to do that in that situation. I feel like I'm a very level-headed person, and I'm courteous on and off the field. He really took it to another level, and that was very impressive."

Actor Chadwick Boseman, an African-American who played baseball until he was 11 and graduated from Howard University, said the chance to portray Robinson was a tremendous personal opportunity.

"There's not many people you can play, black or white, that you would revere in this way," Boseman told the Times. "It's a great honor to play him."

Boseman, 30, said one of his priorities in playing Robinson was learning enough about his personality to understand how he would react to the challenges he faced.

"Who is this person that can withstand this and get through it?" Boseman said. "What are their tendencies and their habits, and how do they think? That you can't really know until you're put in their shoes."

Boseman read several books about Robinson, watched documentaries, viewed action footage from the Hall of the Fame, looked at candid photos (to see mannerisms and reactions) and spoke to Rachel, who also visited the set.

Robinson is challenged throughout the film by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), some of his own teammates and most fiercely by Phillies manager Ben Chapman.

The most dramatic moment occurs when Robinson is pushed by Chapman to the brink of snapping and retreats to the tunnel just off the dugout for an explosive tantrum.

Boseman acknowledged that was the most difficult scene, because of the emotions he had to summon and because it wasn't shot until a week or two after the Chapman exchange had been filmed.

"I had to store it, keep it, let it fester," Boseman said. "You have to walk around with this thing in a similar way that (Robinson) probably had to walk around with a lot of stuff, so that makes it difficult."

Zimmer, who played with Robinson from 1954 to 1956 and saw some of the racial issues even then (like having to drop off Robinson at a different hotel), said the filmmakers "could have made it even tougher than they did."

Another challenge for Boseman was learning to play baseball well enough to look like a professional player, and a famous one at that. To do so, he went through four months of five-days-a-week workouts, focusing on conditioning, hitting, fielding and base running drills while trying to emulate Robinson's distinctive stance and style.

"I'm pretty good now in comparison to what I was," Boseman said.

Major League Baseball has taken several steps to further Robinson's legacy, declaring April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day and universally retiring his No. 42 in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his debut. But the exposure from the film will increase that exponentially.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said he was compelled to research the Robinson story and has long championed a movie, or even a TV miniseries, suggesting it could be based on the Lee Lowenfish book on Rickey, Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman. Maddon said the filmmakers "did a nice job" on 42 but he believes there is more to the story.

Noting that Robinson's breakthrough pre-dated Martin Luther King Jr.'s emergence as a civil rights leader, Maddon said: "What that meant, bringing a country together, is incredible. That's why that was really important to be told."

 
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