published Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Crack of Robinson's bat made him a star: Guts not to fight back made him a hero (with videos)

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    Harrison Ford, left, as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman, right, as Jackie Robinson are seen in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures drama "42," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.


• Born Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga.

• Was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports -- baseball, basketball, football and track.

• He was 28 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; he won the inaugural Rookie of the Year award, which covered both the National and American leagues at the time.

• In 1949, Robinson led the National League in stolen bases and batting average, was named to his first All-Star Game and won Most Valuable Player.

• In 1950, he was paid $35,000, or $333,976 in 2013 dollars, the highest salary of any Dodger; he played himself in a film called "The Jackie Robinson Story."

• From 1952-1954, Robinson helped the Dodgers win three straight National League championships, but they lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in each of those seasons.

• In 1955, the Dodgers won the National League pennant and the World Series, the only time Robinson was on a world championship baseball team; he was 37 and had his worst batting average in the pros -- .256.

• Robinson's last year in baseball was the 1956 season, and he officially retired on Jan. 5, 1957.

• In 1962, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible, becoming the first black player in the hall.

• Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972.

• The number 42 was universally retired from all teams in Major League Baseball in 1997. New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera is allowed to use No. 42 because he'd had it since he came into the league in 1995, but he is retiring after this season.


The Chattanooga Times Free Press is sponsoring a special "42" premiere at the Majestic 12 on Thursday. Part of Broad Street will be closed off and there will be baseball- and film-related activities open to the public. The movie will be screened at 10 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the theater. The movie opens nationwide on Friday.

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    Jackie Robinson, right, poses for a 1947 photo with Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, from left, John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese and Ed Stanky.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Sam Gooden was a youngster living and playing baseball in Chattanooga in 1947. When Jackie Robinson made his debut that year with the Brooklyn Dodgers — the first black man in Major League Baseball — every young black kid suddenly wanted to be like him, Gooden said.

"When he started, he was playing first base and we, as kids in the neighborhood, well, everybody all of a sudden wanted to play first base," recalls Gooden, now 78 and a member of the vocal group The Impressions.

"We saw the type of glove he used in pictures in the newspapers and everybody was looking for a mitt like that."

Robinson's entry into baseball reverberated far beyond the world of sports. As surely as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks played their parts in the civil rights struggle, Robinson's stardom in a baseball-crazy nation was a kind of tipping point. He went on to become far more than a point of pride for blacks in a white world. He became a black man whom everyone could cheer for.

It took time, though.

During that first season, Robinson endured a tremendous dose of racial abuse, both verbal and physical. Spectators harassed him from the stands, players on other teams cursed him on the field and from the dugout. Some baseball managers told their pitchers to throw at his head when he was batting, and runners would try to gouge him with their spikes.

But Robinson had promised officials with the Dodgers, especially general manager Branch Rickey, who initially signed him, that he would keep his cool no matter what. And he did.

"Everybody saw what he did and what he stood for and what he had to go through," Gooden says. "People called him all kinds of things and threw black cats at him. ... He was a guy with a lot of talent who went out and showed people how he could play the game."

With the premiere Friday of "42," the film about Robinson's life and baseball career that has many scenes filmed at Chattanooga's Engel Stadium, producers say they hope to showcase the dignity that Robinson brought to the game as well as the doors he opened for other black players.

Coming in the same year as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the movie underscores Robinson's role in the civil rights saga.

"The story is relevant because we still stand on his shoulders. He started something -- I would even say maybe he didn't even start it, it started before him," Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson in the film, told The Associated Press.

"But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him."

Extra-base hit

Jamie Ruehling knew about Robinson before he was cast in the movie "42." But the 39-year-old assistant principal at Grundy County High School had not heard of Johnny "Spider" Jorgensen, the ballplayer he would portray in the film. Nor did he know the role Jorgensen would play on April 15, 1947.

Like many in the area, Ruehling wanted to be a part of the movie-making experience when Warner Bros. sent a crew here to film at Engel Stadium. He had played baseball at Grundy and later at Tennessee Tech, so he was hoping to be selected as one of the on-field extras to be used as players.

Ruehling sent his application and photo to casting directors to be a part of the movie. He traveled to Atlanta on a couple of occasions to do readings and, once selected, he spent two weeks at the East Cobb Baseball Complex during a mini spring training with the other extras-turned-ballplayers.

"I was the oldest," he said. "These guys were all former college or pro players and they were good."

Ruehling managed an extra-base hit when he was tagged by director Brian Helgeland to play Jorgensen, the Dodger third baseman who was an integral part of the Robinson story in 1947.

Jorgensen and Robinson, who died in 1972, actually met in 1946 as teammates with the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn's minor league team. Jorgensen, who died in 2003, was the last player called up to play for the Dodgers on opening day in 1947. In fact, the call came so late he showed up with no spikes or glove.

Robinson played first base that day and Jorgensen third, so Robinson let the fellow rookie use his fielder's glove while Robinson donned a first-baseman's mitt.

They made history together, recording the first out of the game and the first out in history involving a black major leaguer when Jorgensen fielded a ground ball and threw to Robinson for the 6-3 putout.

Worldwide ripples

In 1947, baseball was the undeniable leading sport in America. Nothing, not even football, came close in popularity. Yet its revenues were down, sagging in part because of the popularity of the Negro Leagues, which had dozens of dynamic and exciting players -- including Robinson -- who were banned from the majors.

Officials with Major League Baseball understood the problem and, in 1945, formed the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration, a panel that included Rickey. The committee never met, though, because of stubbornness about integration from other baseball officials.

Throwing out a smokescreen that he was thinking about starting an all-black league, Rickey -- portrayed by Harrison Ford in "42" -- sent scouts to Negro League games, looking for the right person to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. According to accounts, Rickey pointed out that there were a lot of black baseball fans in New York and that all money is green.

"Branch Rickey was not the only person who wanted this, but he was the maverick," Boseman says in an online news conference that also included Ford and Helgeland on the Warner Bros. website.

And, truth be told, the major leagues also wanted to eviscerate the Negro Leagues so it would not be a serious competitor anymore.

It worked. In his first season, Robinson won Rookie of the Year (in 1987, the award was renamed the Jackie Robinson Award) and soon other black players were being were drafted into the major leagues. Less than 11 weeks after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers in the National League, Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians in the American League. The Negro Leagues ended in 1948.

Rickey had been working on his integration plan for awhile and had secretly signed Robinson to a contract in 1945. The challenge, which is pointed out in the film, is Rickey understood that the first black player -- whoever he was -- would need to be able to handle the abuse that was sure to come his way.

Rickey convinced Robinson that he would have to turn away from every fight and pretend to ignore every racist remark hurled his way. He is reported to have told Robinson that he needed someone "with guts enough not to fight back."

"Thank God he picked someone who could handle it," Boseman says in the online news conference.

Rickey has been quoted as telling Robinson, "Jackie, we've got no army. There's virtually nobody on our side. No owner, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans may be hostile. We'll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you're a great ballplayer, and a fine gentleman."

Ford said he believes the color barrier would have been broken eventually, but "it could have taken 10 or 15 years."

Robinson kept his word to Rickey for two years. In 1949 Robinson began to publicly speak out against racism and for equal rights.

Filming a legacy

Even before he began to film "42," Helgeland said, he knew it had to be about more than baseball. Helgeland said he knew that Robinson's widow, Rachel, is very protective of her husband's legacy. He had to convince her that the movie would be about civil rights and the love story the two shared, as well.

"I had to prove to her that the way I wanted to tell the story was the right way," he said in the online news conference.

Initially she wanted the film to tell more of their life outside baseball and beyond what happened in 1947, Helgeland said, but he convinced her that the movie needed to focus on 1946 and '47.

However, she did make one strong suggestion about a change in the script that the director honored. Helgeland said he doesn't fully understand when a pitcher has balked -- essentially an illegal move designed to deceive a base runner -- and he felt the audience needed to understand it also. In the original script he had Rachel ask someone in the stands about the rule.

"At our first meeting, she sat down and said, 'Well, I read the script and let me ask a question.' She wasn't mad, but she said, 'In what world do you think I don't know what a balk is?'"

Helgeland explained why he wrote it into the script.

"Explain it to someone else. Not me," she told him.

Ruehling said Rachel Robinson came onto the set while the crew was filming in Macon, Ga.

"It was really a highlight of the experience," he said. "I was taking a nap in my trailer and someone came and got me and said she wanted to meet me."

He also spoke with Jorgensen's daughter, whose father was from California, on the phone and the first thing she wanted to know was, "What are we going to do about this Southern accent?"

Ruehling said there wasn't much he could do about his Southern drawl, so it's in the movie.

Ruehling, whose acting experience had been limited to several church-produced plays, said his two dreams in life were to play major league baseball and to be an actor.

"To do both at the same time was amazing," he said.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@times or at 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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