Friday, May 17, 2013

42 and The Baseball Encyclopedia, 8th ed.

When Bonnie and I got home from seeing 42, the recent movie about Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line of major league baseball, I went straight to one of our bookcases for The Baseball Encyclopedia. We had questions to answer, and since our 8th edition of the BE has comprehensive statistics and facts through the 1989 season, we could verify details from the movie.

My first question came from the opening sequence of the movie. The 42 moviemakers included Stan Musial as one of the star players who missed playing time due to World War II. I thought that he had played for the Cardinals without interruption through the war, but I was wrong. He missed the 1945 season. BE verifies the gap in his career.

My second burning question was the identity of the pitcher that the Dodgers traded to the Pirates early in the 1947 season after he had led a petition effort to get Robinson off the team. (I had trouble keeping track of character names during 42.) I was able to triangulate the answer by checking three sections - "The Teams and Their Players," "Trades," and "Pitcher Register." I learned that K. Higbe was a starting pitcher for the Dodgers in 1946 and for the Pirates in 1947. "Trades" showed that Kirby Higbe was traded by the Dodgers on May 3, 1947 to the Pirates with four other players. I checked the "Pitcher Register" just to see how many games Higbe played before the 1947 trade. The answer was four. He had been the Dodgers' winningest pitcher in 1946, so the trade sent a strong message to the rest of the team.

Bonnie wanted to know about the Pirate pitcher who beaned Robinson in one of the games between the teams. His name was Fritz Ostermueller. Though he was called "a mad dutchman" or something to that effect, he was born in Quincy, Illinois. Not every objecting player was from the South.

I had read about Dodger manager Leo Durocher being suspended for a year but had not remembered that it was 1947. The "Manager Register" in BE showed that it was and that he was back at the helm in 1948. The 42 writers did not rearrange events for dramatic effect in this regard.

Of course, the manager that we most wanted to verify was Ben Chapman, the Phillies skipper, who heckled Robinson with racial slurs mercilessly each time the Dodger came to bat. During the credits at the end of the film, the filmmakers indicate that Chapman's managing career ended the next season. That was true, as Chapman managed 79 games into 1948 and was fired by his 7th place team. His lack of success, not his racism, probably sealed his fate. Bonnie and I discussed why the umpires did not stop what was obvious racist behavior. The umpires and the league that paid them may not have wanted Robinson in uniform either. Besides, umpires mostly eject players or manager for disputing or insulting umpires.

42 shows Robinson, the 1947 Rookie of the Year, stealing bases almost at will whenever he reached first base. He led the National League in the category that year, but I was surprised to see he did so with only 29 stolen bases. Perhaps, being intentionally spiked by a rival player mid-season took a toll on his speed. Two years later, when he was the National League Most Valuable Player, he would again lead the league with 37 steals. He played 10 years in the major leagues, all with the Dodgers in Brooklyn, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

At first, I thought Harrison Ford's portrayal of Branch Rickey oddly comic, especially his low voice, but I got used to it. He has many of the best lines in the movie. However, I was always aware that it was Harrison Ford on the screen. The rest of the cast seemed real to me. The movie was a bit too pretty, as movies often are. Perhaps it should have been in black and white. Still, it achieved its goal of telling the story and I would like to see it again.

The Baseball Encyclopedia. 8th ed. MacMillan Publishing, 1990. 2781p. ISBN 0025790404.

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