The Many Jackie Robinson Stories

Posted: April 08, 1997

It's the Montreal Royals' first day of spring training, and after some hesitation, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, glove in hand, steps onto the field.

Suddenly, reporters pounce, firing questions. A seemingly naive Robinson says he doesn't expect his arrival in organized baseball to cause any problems.

``Trouble? The only trouble I'm worried about is ground balls to my right,'' Robinson says sweetly.

Switch to a hotel kitchen where three black men, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, are arguing. A slowly fuming Robinson has heard enough of Gibson's tirade that he should be the one to break baseball's color barrier.

``If the Dodgers picked you, the crackers would declare a holiday,'' Robinson shouts. `` `First colored man in the majors is a fat, sloppy, doped-up drunk.' There's no way in hell anyone else would have a chance after you.''

Whoa - can this be the same Jackie Robinson whose courageous exploits and seemingly passive manner we're celebrating this year?

Well, sort of.

The first scene comes from the 1950 movie, ``The Jackie Robinson Story,'' in which Robinson starred as himself and Ruby Dee played his wife, Rachel. The second comes from ``Soul of the Game,'' a 1996 HBO movie that featured Blair Underwood.

Simply put, image is an era thing.

In the '40s, '50s and '60s, we liked our heroes to be simple men and women who, through fate, hard work or athletic prowess, overcame obstacles. That's what audiences got with ``The Jackie Robinson Story.'' It was clear who the bad guys were: The bigots. And it was clear what the obstacle was: Baseball's color line.

Scattered with inspirational lines (``Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer afraid to fight back?'' Robinson asks Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who quickly answers: ``I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.'') and with Robinson playing himself, the movie presented a positive image. Plus, it didn't hurt to have a little patriotic speech about how he and ``other Americans of many races and faiths'' have ``too much invested in our country's welfare to throw it away, or let it be taken from us.''

Everybody could feel good and proud at the end.

`` `The Jackie Robinson Story' was a scantily researched, low-budget film completed between seasons,'' Rachel Robinson writes in her new book, ``Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait.'' Audiences ``cried at the parts where Jack, with great humility, accepted the abuse heaped on him and walked away. His dignity and strength were touching to see.''

But as his career progressed, it became clear that Robinson had a temper - his run-ins with umpires became legendary - and he didn't always tolerate racial discrimination with such humility.

``See, Jackie was under pressure every minute,'' Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil writes in his autobiography. ``That's why Branch Rickey picked him, because Jackie had been under pressure all his life, and the amazing thing was that, knowing Jackie's disposition, he did take the things he took. Because Jackie was fiery. But take it he did - and I firmly believe that was what killed him at such an early age.'' (Robinson was 53 when he died in 1972.)

There were at least two major flaws with the earlier movie. Robinson spent an unhappy season with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, not some team named the Black Panthers. And in keeping with its upbeat message, the movie completely ignored Robinson's Army court-martial, the result of a shouting match that ensued when he refused to to move to the back of a bus. Robinson was acquitted and eventually got an honorable discharge. (This episode was fodder for a 1990 cable movie, ``The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,'' starring Andre Braugher.)

Despite weak dialogue, Robinson ``managed to play his part expertly and with a dignity that showed his control and his ability to handle a situation with minimal difficulty,'' writes Gary Null, author of ``Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures.''

And the film has staying power. Still seen on cable television and available on video, ``The Jackie Robinson Story'' has an AI rating from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That means it's a family film.

That's not the case with ``Soul of the Game,'' in which Robinson, portrayed by Underwood, has much more of an edge: He's a very together, well-dressed brother who will speak his mind, using some salty language when pushed.

The story isn't about Jackie Robinson. It's about Rickey's decision to pick Robinson and the impact that selection had on Robinson's relationship with Paige and Gibson.

Whereas Rachel was prominent in ``The Jackie Robinson Story,'' everyone but Jackie has a lady (often in bed) in ``Soul of the Game.'' And quite a few artistic licenses were given out: At the end of the credits, you learn the story was a ``dramatization based on certain facts'' and that some ``events and characters'' were created for ``dramatic purposes.'' So you're left certain of only one fact: Robinson made it to the major leagues.

But that monumental achievement is what matters in these films. And it's a good bet that if you mixed the two movie images, you'd come closer to the real Jackie Robinson.

``In the end, everybody realized that Branch Rickey took the right man in Jackie,'' O'Neil writes. ``Rickey might have chosen an easy-going player with talent equal to Jackie's, an unflappable sort of guy who didn't let things get under his skin, but believe me, easy-going wouldn't have done it.''

Look for the JACKIE ROBINSON 50TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE magazine in tomorrow's Daily News.

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