42

KANSAS CITY -- Maybe the best way to explain the movie “42” is to tell two stories about Eddie Stanky. Doing this will provide a small spoiler for a movie sidebar, so if you want to go to “42” knowing nothing whatsoever about the story you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. If you are somewhat familiar with the Jackie Robinson story, you’ll already know all this.Eddie Stanky was a tough little ballplayer from Philadelphia. They called him “The Brat” and “Stank” and “Muggsy” -- he was one of those in-your-face players who commanded multiple gritty nicknames. He was 5-foot-8, hit with no power, and he couldn’t run. He was also crazy competitive, could play many positions (he began as a catcher) and, more than anything, he would foul off tough pitches and lay off the bad ones. This combination of obvious flaws and subtle skills kept him in the minor leagues for eight seasons. He might not have been called to the major leagues at all if there wasn’t a war going on -- in 1943, the Cubs finally gave him a chance to play. In 1945, at the age of 29, he played second base every day for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he walked 148 times and scored 128 runs, both league-leading totals.Stanky was the very essence of scrap and grit and pluck and whatever other term for “unbelievably annoying” you can come up with. He used to try and distract hitters by jumping up and down behind the pitcher. He would do just about anything to kick or punch or bump the ball free on tag plays. He had this way of tagging up on sacrifice flies where he would actually get a running start. Every generation has those players who play more for survival than for joy and are willing to push the edge to win. Stanky was beloved by his home fans, despised on the road, and six times he walked 100-plus times. “Thank you,” he once said after receiving an award, “for recognizing my intangibles.”As for his connection to Jackie Robinson, well, Stanky was Robinson’s Brooklyn teammate in 1947 -- that, of course, was the year the Robinson broke the color barrier, the year at the heart of the movie “42.” One week into that season, Robinson faced his nadir -- the challenge that almost broke his spirit. The Dodgers played against Philadelphia, and the Phillies -- led by their manager Ben Chapman -- unleashed a stream of racist invective so disgusting and unavoidable that even the newspapers (who had witnessed Robinson’s first few games and many who were not exactly leading the charge for racial equality in baseball) could not ignore it. Robinson would say it was then, for the first and perhaps only time, he that wondered if he could persevere.Up to that point, Stanky had shown no particular empathy for Robinson or connection to his cause. A handful of Dodgers players (perhaps led by Dixie Walker, who later talked about his admiration of Robinson) had started a petition to keep Robinson off the team. According to Jonathan Eig’s excellent “Opening Day,” Stanky may have supported that effort. But one thing Eddie Stanky understood was loyalty and the importance of fighting for a teammate. The disgraceful attack by the Phillies spurred Stanky into action.“Listen you yellow-bellied cowards,” Stanky reportedly yelled at the Phillies from the dugout. “Why don’t you yell at someone who can fight back.”Well, the wording is debatable Another report, reprinted in the New York Times, had Stanky yelling, “Why don’t you guys go to work one somebody who can fight back? There isn’t one of you has the guts of a louse.”The movie portrays the scene in even fuller color and has Stanky going through a fairly long and intense exchange with Ben Chapman. There was also an exchange of gratitude between Robinson and Stanky. Maybe the details were not precise, but there is no question that Stanky, driven by loyalty to a teammate and a sense of decency, stood up for Jackie Robinson one week into his career, when it mattered most.OK, but, there’s a second story about Stanky -- one Roger Kahn related in detail in his classic “The Boys of Summer.” The year was 1954, and Robinson had been in the league for seven years, and there were now quite a few African American players, including stars like Willie Mays and Roy Campanella. By the end of that season all but four teams were integrated.*

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