It is fitting that 42 set a new box office record for the opening of a baseball movie last weekend. The film pulled in an impressive $27 million.
The story of Jackie Robinson’s first season in Brooklyn is as important today as it was in 1947. It is an essential history lesson that goes far beyond sports.
From a journalistic perspective, 42 introduces a new generation to Wendell Smith, an African-American sportswriter. The film shows that Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (played nicely by Harrison Ford) requests that Smith (Andre Collins) accompany the young Robinson during this immense journey. Smith is portrayed as a key confidant.
The movie, though, hardly captures the totality of Smith’s role in integrating baseball and his overall impact on the life of the baseball legend. Quite simply, without Smith, the world might not have ever heard of Jackie Robinson.
It was Smith who recommended Robinson to Rickey.
A 1995 expanded edition of Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box, contains a chapter on Smith. A fine high school athlete from Detroit, he became the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier in 1938. Smith said the paper always had a crusade of some sort. He recommended the Courier push for “the inclusion of Negro ballplayers in the big leagues.”
Smith also faced discrimination as an African-American sportswriter. He couldn’t join the Baseball Writers Association of America, and as a result wasn’t allowed in the press box at Forbes Field. He adjusted by interviewing visiting players at their hotel in Pittsburgh. Smith said that 75 percent of them were in favor of integrating the game.
Eventually, the cause picked up traction when papers throughout the country started to print Smith’s stories. In April, 1945, Smith helped arrange for Robinson and two other Negro League players to have a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. Nothing came of it, but on his way back to Pittsburgh, Smith paid a visit to Rickey, who was becoming intrigued with the notion of bringing in an African-American player.
From the book:
I told him what had happened and when I said, “Jackie Robinson,” he raised his eyebrows and he said, “Jackie Robinson! I knew he was an All-American football player and an All-American basketball player. But I didn’t know he played baseball.”
I said, “He’s quite a baseball player, Mr. Rickey. He’s a shortstop.”
We talked for a long time about the merits of the three ballplayers I had taken to Boston. Then he said, “You will hear from me.”
Rickey called a week later and said he was interested. Smith told Robinson, “Jackie, the Dodgers are trailing you.”
It could have ended quickly. Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth learned of an incident in which it appeared Robinson punched an umpire. Rickey was concerned, because he knew Robinson would need to control himself once he got to the big leagues.
Smith assured Rickey it was just “a routine argument with the umpire.”
“I didn’t want to tell Mr. Rickey, ‘Yes, he’s tough to get along with,’” Smith said in the book. “A lot of us knew that. When he was aroused, Jackie had a sizable temper. Then I told Jackie to watch himself, to watch his conduct. Everything he did, on and off the field, would get back to Mr. Rickey.”
Why did Smith promote Robinson over others like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson?
“He wasn’t necessarily the best player, but he was the best player at that time for this particular situation,” he said.
After Rickey signed Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, he asked Smith to live and travel with him. Smith was paid $50 per week, the same amount he was earning as sports editor of the Courier.
It also proved to be quite a ride for Smith. Like Robinson on the field, Smith decided he also had to play it low-key.
“There were people who wanted to become part of it, to push it faster,” Smith said. “Fortunately, I managed to keep them away. If more people had been involved, it would have done more harm than good. That’s one of the reasons why we succeeded.”
Smith also broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American member of the BBWAA. He eventually moved to Chicago. In the 1960s, while covering the White Sox, he was instrumental in integrating spring training facilities in Florida.
As fate would have it, Smith died just a month after Robinson’s death in 1972. More than a thousand mourners attended his funeral. A Chicago elementary school was named for him in 1973. In 1993, he received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the top award for a baseball writer, meriting a place of honor in the Hall of Fame.
Obviously, Smith deserves his spot in Cooperstown along with Robinson. He was more than eyewitness to history. Smith helped create it.
“When I think back, it was absolutely fantastic; all the things we went through,” he said in Holtzman’s book. “I still think about it; it’s hard to conceive. Going into a town and finding a decent place to stay was not easy in those days. Eating in the places we ate, second and third rate. Always having this stigma hanging over your head.
“But I knew Jackie would make it. And I knew if he made it, things had to open up.”