It's not as if baseball was the first sport to embrace African-American athletes -- the NFL and NBA share the honors on that front. So why is it, then, that Jackie Robinson, a black man who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and whose story is told in "42," a movie opening Friday, has become the poster child for racial equality in professional sports?
"It's because it was the most popular sport at the time, it was the biggest arena," says Brian Helgeland, writer-director of "42" (Robinson's uniform number). "And maybe because of the team nature of it, there were 25 guys on the team, all white except him. Maybe it feels like he's the underdog, the only one."
"None of the ones who broke the color line in the NFL and the NBA, none of them were as good a player as Jackie Robinson, who was a Hall of Fame player," adds Bob Costas, who hosts "Costas at the Movies" on the MLB Network. "Plus, he was in the biggest media market in the world."
Spurred by a combination of idealism and business acumen, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford in the film) plucked Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) out of the Negro Leagues and signed him to the team. After getting an agreement from Robinson that he would not lose his temper, no matter what the provocation (Rickey was afraid of jeopardizing the chances of black players who would follow him), Robinson was promoted to the majors, where he became an instant star. Although he initially had to deal with the virulent racism of some fans and other players (Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman and his team were particularly vile in this regard), Robinson played 10 years for the Dodgers. He wound up appearing in six All-Star Games, was rookie of the year in 1947, and National League MVP in 1949. He also played himself in the 1950 movie "The Jackie Robinson Story."
"The thing that struck me" about Robinson, says Helgeland, "was his greatest chance of success on the field was not to think about a lot, but just to think about playing, under monumental pressure. I think it was kind of staggering, the scrutiny he was under."
Helgeland's film not only attests to the eternal nature of Robinson's story, but the ongoing interest in movies about America's national pastime. Rob Edelman, author of "Great Baseball Films," estimates there may be as many as 200 films made solely about the sport, and many more that reference it. "A lot of these films reflect on baseball as an American sport, there's a certain patriotism here," he says.
"Baseball movies often underline values inherent in the American psyche," adds Irv Slifkin of MovieFanFare.com. "Like teamwork, going beyond the call to win or achieve, responding triumphantly in a tough position. Also, teams on-screen are often depicted as melting pots of colorful characters, much like the idealized perception of the country."
Costas notes that the popularity of baseball and baseball flicks also may have something to do with relatability, the fact that "players tend to be closer to average size, and some, like Babe Ruth, have been unathletic looking. It's more of an everyman's game." And, he adds, there's a "pastoral aspect" to it -- that lush, green field -- coupled with an urban one, exemplified by kids playing stickball in the streets, making it a true national passion.
What makes for a good baseball film? "The same elements that make for any good film," says Edelman. "If it's a comedy, it has to be funny. If it's a drama, it has to be dramatic. A good script, good characters."
In that respect, you can't do better than "42," because Robinson's story, how he overcame racism to become a major star, still resonates today.
"It's about what one person can achieve," says Helgeland. "And it sort of forced people to face the subject in a different way. Now it's not just an idea, it's a person out there, and people are looking at him and deciding what they think. It's an important enough story to remind everyone once in a while. I mean, it's not like racism has gone away."
TEN CINEMATIC HOME RUNS
Rob Edelman, author of "Great Baseball Films," estimates there could be as many as 200 movies made about the game. Here are 10 of the best.
THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942) -- Gary Cooper stars as Lou Gehrig, a great ballplayer slowly dying of a debilitating disease. Teresa Wright plays his loving wife. Gehrig's famous line: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) -- A star pitcher (Michael Moriarty) and his mediocre catcher (Robert De Niro) deal with the catcher's terminal illness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The Bad News Bears (1976) -- Alcoholic slob manager (Walter Matthau) takes over a raucous kids' baseball team and turns them into winners. Foulmouthed, funny and one of the great sports comedies.
Bull Durham (1988) -- Veteran minor league catcher Kevin Costner mentors talented dim-bulb pitcher Tim Robbins, while falling for groupie Susan Sarandon. Sexy, funny, real.
Major League (1989) -- This film about a last-place Cleveland Indians team that gets hot and wins the pennant is sheer dumb fun. And when Charlie Sheen makes that entrance to "Wild Thing" . . .
A League of Their Own (1992) -- Tom Hanks stars as the manager of an all-female pro team in the 1940s. Remember -- there is no crying in baseball.
The Rookie (2002) -- The true story of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), who bet members of the high school team he coached that if they made the state playoffs, he'd try out for the bigs. He eventually makes it.
Sugar (2008) -- A pitcher from the Dominican Republic tries to make it in the United States. He fails, but moves to New York and becomes part of the great melting pot. A terrific film about baseball and the immigrant experience.
Moneyball (2011) -- Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) builds a competitive team with little money and use of statistics.