Jackie Robinson died 40 years ago this fall. But lest anyone think the Brooklyn Dodgers icon is best viewed as a relic of history in these days of multicutural baseball, a star of the upcoming Robinson film “42” says that the barrier-breaking baseball player is as relevant as ever.
“After electing Barack Obama, it seems so natural we can beat the crap out of him,” Hamish Linklater, who plays Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in the movie, said by phone from the film's Alabama set. “Every now and then it’s nice to say ‘maybe we are a evolving as a race and a people.’ A baseball movie is a way to offer a little bit of hope.”
Linklater, best known as deadpan brother Matthew Kimble in TV's “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” tackles the role of a Dodgers pitcher who was Robinson’s teammate during the infielder’s game-changing debut season of 1947. (Branca was one of the few Dodgers willing to line up next to Robinson on opening day. Major League Baseball is commemorating the 65th anniversary of Robinson's iconic season this year.)
Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) wrote and is directing the movie, which looks at General Manager Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson and Manager Leo Durocher’s choice to play him in the face of a fierce backlash. Harrison Ford stars as Rickey while up-and-comer Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson.
Linklater describes the film, which Legendary Pictures is financing and Warner Bros. will release at the start of next year's baseball season, as “a sports movie and a social justice movie rolled into one.” “Sports is such a great contextualizer,” he added. (The "42" is, of course, a reference to Robinson's number, which has become a symbol of cross-racial heterogeneity throughout sports.)
At 86, Branca is the only surviving star from that 1947 team. His back story is fascinating in its own right. Though he won 21 games that year and was a three-time All-Star, Branca became best known for an ill-fated relief appearance in 1951 in which he gave up the so-called “Shot Heard 'Round the World” to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson. Branca later found out Thomson was stealing signs but kept quiet for decades because he and the Giants slugger had become friends.
On top of that, Branca learned late in life that his mother was Jewish but that she had kept the fact from him and his more than dozen siblings after fleeing Eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century.
“None of that is really in this film,” Linklater quipped. “But it would make a great movie.”
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Jackie Robinson and his teammates at Ebbets Field in April 1947. Credit: AP