Tom Blount: ‘42’ brings memories to fore

Apr. 21, 2013 @ 03:21 AM

Went to see “42” the other day.
Even with some historical flaws (embellishments, liberty taken by the screenplay deviating from conventional form or fact to achieve a desired effect, etc.),  “42”  has some really good lessons in several subjects for folks of all ages, especially those who weren’t alive in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s.
I didn’t see Jackie Robinson play in 1947, but I read a lot about him in the Pittsburgh newspapers and The Sporting News, and  learned about some of what he endured as a 28-year-old rookie breaking baseball’s color line.
As a seventh-grader that summer, I was a catcher (because no one else would get behind the plate) for a team of guys two years older than me. As an eighth-grader, I played first-base left-handed after suffering a right (normal throwing arm) elbow injury. Then, as a freshman and sophomore, I caught and played third-base (replacing the team sponsor’s son) in the Beaver Falls (Pa.) City League. None of “my” teams had black players but many of the teams we played did.
One of those black players, Leonard “Little Mo” James, who began school the year before me and graduated the year after me, was Jackie Robinson incarnate. Playing semipro football as an eighth-grader, he became a three-sport star in high school. There was no track team. But James may have been the best all-around athlete I ever knew.
Moving to Rochester (Pa.) during my junior year, I played first-base two years on teams that included three blacks, one of whom looked, walked, talked, ran, fielded and swung like Robinson – but hit very little when he swung. George Walker was sharp enough, however, later to be elected to several terms as mayor. I don’t recall any blacks on Pitt’s team while I was there but cross-town rival Duquesne had a battery of Dick and Dave Ricketts (both later played for the St. Louis Cardinals).
I played a couple of games at third-base for a team of blacks in 1957 to avoid forfeits when only eight of its members showed up.
The Sporting News often had stories about American major and minor league players toiling in “winter” league in Latin America, and I often wondered what that would have been like. I found out during the summer of ’55 when my best buddy in Rochester and two guys I knew from Beaver Falls and I joined the Koppel Merchants [Beaver County League]. The rest of the team’s 25-man roster was made up of players of Italian descent (including a black catcher) from Koppel and Ellwood City, two mill towns divided by the Beaver River and a toll bridge. All of them spoke Italian and we four from elsewhere didn’t, but we knew what they were saying about us wasn’t good. We learned some Italian swear words.
I did see Robinson play in Pittsburgh in 1948, and at least four other times through the summer of ’56. I saw something twice that I’d never seen before in one of those ’48 games: Ralph Kiner hit a grand slam homer in the fifth or sixth inning and Robinson followed with one in the eighth. Greenberg Gardens was created upon the arrival of veteran slugger Hank Greenberg in 1947 when the bullpens were moved from foul territory to the base of the scoreboard in left field and were fenced in, cutting 30 feet from the normal 365 feet down the left field line and from 406 feet to 376 feet in left-center field. It doesn’t show up in “42” scenes at Forbes Field, but that spot seemed to suit Robinson well. I saw three of the several homers he drove to the pens during his career.
Can’t wait for Ken Burns’ special on Robinson’s life before and after “the grand experiment.”

Tom Blount retired as editor of The High Point Enterprise in 2012.