'42' gives nod to Wendell Smith, journalism

Wendell Smith, a sports reporter from the 1930's. Wendell Smith, a sports reporter from the 1930's. Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Photo, 1966

advertisement | advertise on newsday

John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

As an old newspaper person -- a member of the fraternal order of ink-stained wretches -- I was delighted by the opening scene of "42."

There is the tapping of a typewriter (ask your grandmother) as Wendell Smith, a long-overlooked hero in the Jackie Robinson story, goes about chronicling what many have called the trigger development in the late 1940's brewing fight for integration in America.

Smith, played by Andre Holland, gets plenty of screen time as the man arranging for Robinson's travel and housing during Robinson's first spring training in segregated Florida, even as Smith files dispatches on Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey's "great experiment" for the weekly Pittsburgh Courier, the nation's most influential black newspaper of the time.

In ballgame settings, as Robinson deals with protests and racism, wreaking havoc on the basepaths and getting some measure of revenge with his feet and bat, Smith is seen sitting among the fans -- blacks were not allowed in the press box -- his typewriter on his lap (forerunner to the laptop), recording the Robinson gospel.

Probably, though, Smith deserved more credit than "42" affords him. There is an early scene in which Rickey (Harrison Ford, made up in bushy Rickey eyebrows) declares his intention to bring the first black player into Major League Baseball. "I don't know who he is or where he is," is the Rickey line, "but he's coming."

In fact, Smith had been offering the names of candidates in his newspaper columns and writing letters to team owners about the topic since the mid-1930s. The late Lester Rodney began to re-print some of Smith's righteous campaigning against baseball's segregation in Rodney's Communist paper, The Daily Worker. He told me during 1997's 50th anniversary of Robinson's entry into the majors that Smith long before has been "interviewing teams as they came into Pittsburgh . . . [and] broke a story saying there were 20 black players good enough to play in the majors.

"Hard as it is for people today to conceive, none of our great [white] newspapers were editorially saying, 'What's going on here?' There was no outrage, no investigative articles listing qualified black players, no queries to the commissioner or league presidents," Rodney said. "Nothing. Sam Lacy at the Baltimore Afro-American and Joe Bostice at the Amsterdam News were doing some of that, but Smith was the powerhouse, and the Courier was the largest Negro weekly in the country."

It isn't possible in a two-hour movie to check all the boxes of history, to pull on every thread of detail in unraveling the entire Robinson timeline. Kudos to "42" for bringing the Robinson narrative to another generation, for fulfilling what the late historian Jules Tygiel, known for his Robinson scholarship, saw as the necessity to re-tell the Jackie Robinson story each year, like the story of Passover, to bring renewal and hope.

But, how about this? In 1938, Wendell Smith, though denied access to the Pirates' Forbes Field press box and clubhouse because of his race, polled big-league players and managers in their Pittsburgh hotel lobby and reported that 75 percent of them were not opposed to integration. Smith wrote about the contradiction of segregation in professional sports within a country that was then going to war "for democracy."

A few years later, Smith specifically recommended Robinson -- and Robinson's UCLA football teammate, Kenny Washington -- to Rickey. Of course the focus of "42" couldn't wander far from the basic Robinson drama, in which Smith was a supporting actor. But there might have been room for a quick flashback:

Of Wendell Smith winning an American Legion championship game in 1933, after which a major-league scout, Wish Egan, signed Smith's catcher, future Chicago White Sox player Mike Tresh.

He then told Smith, "I wish I could sign you, too, kid. But I can't."

"42" does the basic work of recounting what author/commentator Roger Rosenblatt once called a "victory over the ludicrous. The ridiculous . . . that when Jackie Robinson played, he turned an upside-down nation right-side up."

But it was nice to see the acknowledgment of an enterprising journalist, at a time when the nation was all a-twitter over the insight that credible newspaper people could offer.

You also may be interested in: