Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Story Worth Retelling

One of the more interesting "fantasy" sports out there is "dream casting". Even in the greatest movies, there can be disagreement over who should play whom.For instance, an early cast list for Casablanca paired Ronald Reagan with Ann Sheridan, in the roles eventually immortalized by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. And it's virtually impossible to dream of anyone but Judy Garland as "Dorothy" in The Wizard Of Oz, but at one point studio execs were desperate to hire Shirley Temple from a rival film company. Alas, the deal couldn't be struck, leaving us MGM's default
choice. Sometimes the world works the way it's supposed to...

Now consider the two gentlemen pictured above. Notice a resemblance? Well, the man on the right does. He, of course, is Robert Redford, and he wants to portray the gentleman on the left, Branch Rickey, who re-integrated American professional baseball after World War II by signing Jackie Robinson to a major-league contract.

The story, of course, is well worth telling. In the earliest days of Professional baseball, players of all races were welcome. Then, shortly before the beginning of the last century, a movement began to bar black players from the game. There is some debate over exactly how it started, but within a few years, every team in the professional ranks had banned blacks from their rosters. The "color line", as it was called, was never officially written into the league rules. But it was as mandatory as if it had been. Black players and fans started their own teams [Google The Negro League for the history of that era], but there was always a sense that the situation was fundamentally wrong. (Ironically, throughout this time, some players of color, notably Native Americans and Hispanics, were welcomed in the pro game.)

As the Second World War was ending, Branch Rickey was a long-time baseball executive, then working for the Brooklyn Dodgers.He had been scouting several Negro League players in secret. He was drawn to Jackie Robinson, playing for Kansas City. Robinson had served in the Army [at the time, also segregated], and had dealt with racism during his training in Texas. A white bus driver had ordered him to sit in the back of the vehicle, standard procedure for blacks at that time. Robinson refused, leading to court marshal proceedings. In the military trial that followed, he was acquitted by an all-white jury. Shortly thereafter, he was granted an honorable discharge.

Rickey met with Robinson, and told him that his on-field skills were not an issue. He was ready for the Major Leagues. But he was going to be a trail-blazer, which would call for other skills. Rickey wanted him to ignore the abuse that would inevitably come with being the first black player in almost eighty years. Robinson reportedly said, "Do you really want a player afraid to fight back?" Rickey said he needed a player "with the guts not to fight back". They agreed that Robinson would ignore the baiting for his first year in the Majors; after that, Rickey said he could deal with matters as he saw fit.

Following a spectacular season at Brooklyn's top minor-league club, in Montreal, PQ, Canada, Jackie Robinson played his first major-league game on April 15th, 1947. He faced abuse that would have crushed a lesser man, not only from fans and opposing teams, but, in a few cases, from his own teammates. He rose above the emotional turmoil to become the first-ever Rookie Of The Year, and go on to a career of exemplary play. He was named to his sport's Hall Of Fame after his retirement, and his patience against sometimes horrific abuse helped lead to the re-integration of baseball.

Getting back to the resemblance matter, I don't quite see it. But Redford knows from baseball. He scored a major triumph with The Natural [much of which was filmed in and around Buffalo] and, as noted above, has picked a story that still resonates in American life. He may just be the man to help tell it. Let's hope.


Buzz Stephens said...

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This week they are featuring Judy's final recording session from June of 1969, as well the complete Broadcast of one of the Good News shows featuring Judy, an hours worth of ultra rare outtakes from A Star Is Born, other Judy rarities, and live performance by Billie Holiday at The Uptown House, Anita O'Day with the all stars, and Doris Day live from Television City.
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