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.