Today, April 15th, is Jackie Robinson Day. It’s the day across all of Major League Baseball when all players wear Jackie’s iconic no. 42. Retired throughout the sport in 1997, it hasn’t been seen since the grandfathered-in Mariano Rivera retired in 2013. That is, of course, except for Jackie Robinson Day.

Though Ken Griffey Jr. is credited with the idea of wearing the retired number, it’s not exactly known how the ceremonial uniformity transpired. It’s not even known if the moment that inspired the number-wearing even happened at all.

Legend has it that Jackie’s teammate Pee Wee Reese once put his arm around him and declared, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42. That way they won’t tell us apart.”

It’s a moment depicted in tall tales and even in children’s books. In the Little Golden Book about Jackie, author Frank L. Berrios writes, “Even some of Jackie’s teammates treated him badly. But others, like shortstop Pee Wee Reese, stood by him when times were tough.” This was also portrayed in the film of the same name, 2013’s 42, and has become the most memorable moment in Jackie’s definitive biopic. 

It wasn’t the first time his story was told on screen. He played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, which is mediocre if not necessarily bad. He received the Afterschool Special treatment and got a handful of feature-length television movies, but nothing felt go-to. Until 42. And that’s largely because of Chadwick Boseman’s performance in the leading role.

In retrospect, the casting of Boseman feels obvious. His too-short career was filled with biographies of influential Black Americans. From his performance in 42 to the title role in Marshall to playing James Brown in Get On Up (to a supporting performance in The Express: The Ernie Davis Story), this is what he did. That’s not to mention his performance as the most influential Black superhero of all time in his Black Panther appearances and his work in films from our greatest Black artists, from Spike Lee to August Wilson. If you knew who Chadwick would become, you’d want him to play Jackie Robinson. It’s shocking that it’s one of his first films. He’s charming, yet hard-shelled. He’s athletic and looks like a natural on the sporting end of the role. And damn if he doesn’t feel like the Jackie we have in our heads.

The film itself is a typical biopic. It’s the definitive film version because it’s pretty good and there’s nothing better, but it takes its fair share of liberties just like any other film. It’s complete with all of the most important moments. It shows his time in the Negro Leagues, his days in the Dodgers’ minor league system, and the racial slurs hurled at him when he reaches Brooklyn…not to mention every other city he plays in. He meets Rachel (Nicole Beharie), plays some ball as well as he can, and even finds himself a hero by winning the National League pennant with a home run.

The main relationship in the film is the time he spends with Branch Rickey, the Dodgers owner and the man credited with bringing Jackie to the National League. Harrison Ford plays Rickey and, once again, this is pitch-perfect casting. Ford’s persona, particularly later in his career, is that of a gruff geezer. However, if you wear down that hard exterior and manage to bring out that twinkle in his eye, it’s heart-melting. And Jackie makes him happy. What the movie leaves out is that Rickey loved Jackie because Rickey loved money, but that’s not the movie’s intention. Regardless, Ford gives both sides of Rickey. With a resume filled with leading man performances, he brings that charm to a rare supporting role here. He never pulls focus, but he can steal the occasional scene. 

As you can expect, the movie’s main storyline is that of the racism Jackie faces everywhere he goes. In one particularly painful scene, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (played by a crazy-eyed Alan Tudyk), throws out some gross vocabulary with Jackie as his target. As Jackie stands strong, it’s a white teammate, Eddie Stanky, who finally cracks and stands up for him. “Why don’t you try picking on someone who can fight back,” he barks. The film depicts the Jackie of the tall tales, never needing to snap back because his baseball speaks for itself. After Jackie comes around home to score, he throws a quick acknowledging glance in the direction of Chapman, but his first word is to Stanky. “Thanks,” he says.

“For what?” responds Stanky. “You’re on my team, what I am supposed to do?” And, after a beat, “Nice hit.”

As for that moment with Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black in the film), it’s the most iconic story of a teammate standing up for, and in this case standing next to, Jackie. A statue of The Embrace stands in Brooklyn. It’s an important moment in Ken Burns’ Baseball, and it’s the best scene in this film for sure. 

Did it ever happen? We aren’t sure. Burns himself said, “There’s no image or write-up anywhere.” Robinson biographer Jonathan Eig wrote, “The myth serves a really nice purpose. Unfortunately, it’s just a myth.” Jackie told stories that sounded like The Embrace, but the details never seemed to match up.

But it makes for great moviemaking. Joe Posnanski, in his latest book Why We Love Baseball, writes “Maybe it wasn’t Cincinnati, maybe it wasn’t a full-on embrace, maybe it was just Pee Wee Reese standing close to his friend. But it happened, something most ordinary and extraordinary, a plain kindness between teammates, a simple gesture from a man raised to be a racist toward a Black man he came to admire and love.”

That’s the attitude the film takes and, true or not, it works. It works because, whether he said it or not, whether we’ve hindsightedly rewritten it or not, Reese was right. Today, they will all wear 42. And we won’t be able to tell them apart. 

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