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Dig deeper than '42' to find the real Jackie Robinson

If Roger Ebert were still with us, the hunch here is that he'd give "42" a thumbs up, and it would be next-to-impossible, and pointless, to disagree.

Starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African American in 62 years to play major-league baseball, and Harrison Ford as the visionary executive Branch Rickey, "42" (so named for the number Robinson wore and which is now permanently retired throughout the majors) is an old-fashioned baseball hero movie in the same league as "Pride of the Yankees" (in fact, "42" could have been called "Pride of the Dodgers"), filled with pathos and courage and conflict and transcendence. It's a retro Hollywood cinema-as-morality play, swinging for the fences with righteous earnestness. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that.

As a primer to Robinson's role in baseball history, you could do worse than "42," despite its inexplicable fuzziness on certain relatively minor facts (the Dodgers held spring training in Cuba in 1947, not Panama; and manager Leo Durocher was suspended for consorting with gamblers, not for having sex with an actress).

But if you want a deeper, more comprehensive portrait of Robinson and a fuller context of the times in which he lived, here are some suggestions:

Watch Part 7 of Ken Burns' majestic "Baseball" documentary from nearly 20 years ago. You'll see stunning film clips and photographs of Robinson — in action on the diamond, mingling with fans before a game or with teammates in the dugout.

Look at Robinson's face, his eyes. No actor, no matter how inspired a performance, can quite get that charismatic combination of intensity, fearlessness, confidence and vulnerability. Listen to his clear-as-a-bell voice, simultaneously high-pitched and highly authoritative. Watch how Robinson (the most electrifying and ferocious baserunner since Ty Cobb retired some two decades earlier) ran, like the UCLA track star he was, his spread-out fingers vertically slicing the air as his arms pump and his legs propel him with a barely controlled fury.

Listen to the moving testimonials of his equally courageous widow, Rachel, and the now-deceased Buck O'Neil, Arthur Ashe and Curt Flood. And listen also to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who, while celebrating Robinson's life, was pained to wonder why it took so long for this nation, and this nation's pastime, to do the right thing.

Take a look at Robinson's numbers. Even if you reduce him to statistics, even if you examine him in a cold vacuum, without any of the racially and socially influential heat his 10 years in the majors generated, you'd easily still find him Hall of Fame-worthy. A .311 lifetime batting average, .409 on-base percentage, two-time National League stolen-base leader, an NL batting title — those are just some of the stats that will help you understand that Robinson was, beyond a monument to hard-earned American freedom, an amazing and revolutionary ballplayer.

And then consider this: On the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, Robinson was a shortstop. With the Triple-A Montreal Royals, he was a second baseman. As baseball's first Rookie of the Year, he was a first baseman. Before his big-league career was over, he'd play at least 197 games at four positions — first, second, third and outfield — and played them with a feral aggressiveness if not a defensive-minded delicateness.

Read Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," published in 1972, the year he died at 53. You'll find uncomfortable, blunt-edged honesty, such as: "... I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."


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