I've seen 42, the new movie about Jackie Robinson, a couple of times now, and the film has left me with one burning question: What do the filmmakers have against the Pittsburgh Pirates?
We all know who the usual bad guys are in the oft-told story of the breaking of the color line in organized baseball: the Southern-born teammates who don't want to play with a black man, Phillies manager Ben Chapman spewing racist invective when Robinson comes up to bat, the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter spiking him at first base. And sure enough, they all make their appearances on the big screen. But, curiously, the film also includes the Pittsburgh Pirates on its roster of villains. Though there's scant evidence in the historical record of racism among Pirates players, the Pittsburgh team continually pops up as a primary antagonist of major-league baseball's first African-American player—and a pathetic, laughable one at that.
The Pirates come across as a home to mean-spirited racists, ready to put an end to Robinson's career—and even his life—to keep the sport lily-white. Pirate pitcher Fritz Ostermueller (a prime villain in the film, although he has previously never even been a footnote in other accounts of Robinson's ordeal) screams, "You don't belong here!" at Robinson before decking him with a deliberately aimed beanball early in the season. As the season and the film come to an end, the Pirates make another appearance, with Ostermueller serving up a pennant-clinching home-run ball to Robinson while again ranting, "You don't belong here," even as Robinson's hit has just confirmed his big-league playing credentials.
Portraying the franchise as welcoming to racists is bad enough, even with the historical record reworked to underline the point. In real life, Ostermueller's pitch hit Robinson on the elbow, not in the head, and the Dodgers did not clinch the pennant on Robinson's homer off Ostermueller.
The film's epilogue reveals that after the season ended, Dodger outfielder Dixie Walker, another Robinson foe, "was traded .... to Pittsburgh." Cue audience laughter.
But to turn the Pittsburgh Pirates into a punchline as well? Pitcher Kirby Higbe, the ringleader of the Dodger petition against playing with Robinson, is quickly traded to the Steel City, taking his leave from the team's clubhouse incredulously muttering "Pittsburgh," as though it was on another planet. And the What-happened-to-them-after-Robinson's-rookie-season? epilogue that runs before the credits reveals that after the season ended, Dodger outfielder Dixie Walker, another Robinson foe, "was traded .... to Pittsburgh." Cue audience laughter. This seems like overkill when it comes to the hapless Pirates, second-division dwellers who finished the 1947 season 32 games behind the Dodgers, and recently entered the 2013 season having been shut out of the playoffs since 1992.
No, I'm not a particular fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but I can recognize a raw deal when I see it—and the movie has definitely dealt the Pirates an unfair hand. And there's another true-to-life twist in the saga of the "racist" Pirates: It was Pittsburgh that, on September 1, 1971, fielded the first all-black starting lineup in major-league baseball. Can the Pirates get equal time to tell that story on film?