Collier: We can't truly grasp what Jackie Robinson endured

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Major League Baseball has been congratulating itself about Jackie Robinson now for 66 years, earnestly and genuinely and in a variety of contexts celebrating the nearly unfathomable courage of the first African-American big leaguer.

Some part of that earnestness, of course, is because for the previous 66 years, and more, it had just as enthusiastically patted itself on the back for keeping black players out of the show.

In the 21st century, the game annually looks hard in the historical mirror in the days leading up to April 15, the anniversary of Robinson's first game for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and this year it gets a huge assist from the makers of "42," a new biopic from Legendary Pictures, the Hollywood production company of Steelers ownership partner Thomas Tull.

Tull, who recently moved to Pittsburgh, attended a White House screening last week with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and found himself just a tad jittery because his movie makes clear, for dramatic effect, that in 1947 no one particularly welcomed a trade to Pittsburgh.

It wasn't as it is now, when everyone wants to be traded to Pittsburgh.

Oh wait, that's hockey.

So in "42" when a Robinson teammate reacts to news of such a trade with an incredulous, almost indignant, "Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh?!" Tull called out, "Mr. Rooney, I'm sorry. I had nothing to do with those lines!"

The movie opens Friday and for a typically insightful review, you should see Barbara Vancheri's piece that will appear that day, but I can tell you that Pittsburgh plays a critical role in the narrative even if that is for reasons that aren't made terribly obvious.

One of the film's most intriguing characters is Wendell Smith, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and the man without whom Robinson might never have made it out of spring training. Smith, whose readership numbered in the hundreds of thousands thanks to the Courier's national appeal, was practically handpicked by Dodgers executive Branch Rickey to facilitate Robinson's ascent.

"There was no question about that," said Bill Nunn, who worked at the Courier for 23 years before he embarked on a distinguished career as a Steelers talent evaluator that endures to this day. "In many respects, Wendell had to do almost everything for Jackie at the time. He wound up on Rickey's payroll, but he was still doing stories about Jackie. Wendell had to make arrangements for him because they couldn't stay at white hotels in the South. There were times when Jackie was ready to give it up.

"Once he got up to Montreal [the Dodgers top minor league club] it wasn't as bad, but in the South it was really horrible. Some of it was still going on by the time I was traveling as a scout."

Before he left for a job in Chicago in 1948, Smith gave Robinson his own column in the Courier, "Jackie Robinson Says ..."

Nunn wound up writing it.

"Every time Jackie came to Pittsburgh, he'd show up at the Loendi Club in the Hill District; he loved to play cards and he was constantly playing with my father, bridge and everything like that. All the black ballplayers who eventually came through Pittsburgh stayed with families in the black community. Pittsburgh wasn't the greatest for integration either. You couldn't swim at the Highland Park pool. South Park had two swimming pools, one for blacks and one for whites."

Equally as shameful, we find Smith reminding Robinson in "42" that there is more at stake in what Rickey modestly called his noble experiment than the fate of Jackie Robinson. Smith himself wasn't allowed in the press boxes of the day.

"He really fought over that," Nunn said. "We had a circulation of over 400,000, and some of these little papers could get in the press box and we couldn't."

A year after Robinson broke the so-called color barrier, Smith became the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

In its own way, "42" is something of a noble experiment as well, because most Americans have either forgotten or never even knew the grim details of Robinson's story, and this film is willing to deliver it again in a kind of sweet, palatable vehicle that doesn't break any new ground in illuminating a very complicated man.

You could make this film another 50 times and populate it with another 50 heroes, black and white, and perhaps still not fully unearth the moral anguish that inspired it.

My favorite anecdote on this part of baseball history is a missive from Ford Frick, president of the National League, to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals had planned a strike when Robinson visited their city and were talked out of it in part by the late Stan Musial, the Donora native who'd played with blacks in his hometown and knew that baseball's color line was morally indefensible.

"If you do this," Frick wrote, "you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequences. You will find if you go through with your intention that you have been guilty of complete madness."

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Gene Collier:


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