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"42" adds itself to the list of movie gifts to baseball fans


Ralph Branca retired in 1956. He is 87 years old and 57 seasons removed from the field, but Branca has a new baseball legacy for me.

The pitcher forever known to baseball fans as the man who gave up the Shot Heard Round the World — the home run to Bobby Thomson that lifted the New York Giants to the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 — will now always be the teammate who reached out a hand to Jackie Robinson the first time Robinson walked into the Brooklyn clubhouse. The teammate who would not only defend the first black player in Major League Baseball on the field, but tell him to shower with his teammates instead of waiting until they were done.

As depicted in the new film "42," Robinson was worried his white teammates might be uncomfortable, but Branca told him he was a member of the team, one of the reasons for their success and he should shower with the rest of them. It is a significant and moving moment that plays out with an overriding humor.

The scene is one of the gifts of the movie about Robinson, which opened Friday. The film brings us back to Robinson's story, shares his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and his strength along with his baseball skills. It reminds us all of a shameful time in the history of the country and Major League Baseball, and the men who helped us get past it. And it gives us a baseball movie, one that tells an inspiring true story and offers on-field moments — like watching Robinson rattle a pitcher with a big lead or steal home — that make you want to head to the ballpark.

Baseball movies still stir the fan, even one who has gone from a 162-game regular season habit to casual viewing over the years. Like the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass, the trailers draw you in.

A baseball movie is like Opening Day; fans show up excited and hoping for greatness, but carrying a nagging worry of disappointment. Will the film turn the game's natural poetry into something so corny even the most ardent baseball lovers can't stand it? Will the actors believably transform into ballplayers? Will the baseball strategy seamlessly weave itself into the narrative or stand out for its lack of authenticity?

At times, the ridiculous can be forgiven. When Tom Berenger steps to the plate in "Major League" and points to the outfield stands – implying he's going to hit a homer — before pulling off a successful squeeze bunt on a gimpy knee, baseball fans shake their heads but cheer anyway.

If "42" weren't based on a true story, it would seem equally unrealistic. Who could believe there could be a man so talented and proud who could handle himself with such skill on the field and such grace and dignity off of it? But we know it to be true, so with "42," fans just hope the story is allowed to tell itself without actors, writers and directors getting in the way.

The movie did not disappoint. It gives us not only moments with Robinson but with Branch Rickey (who signed Robinson), Dodgers teammates — the ignorant and enlightened — and Wendell Smith, the black baseball writer charged with sticking by Robinson through the transition and tumult of breaking into the big leagues.

Baseball movies often fall into two categories: comedies like "Major League" and "Bull Durham" or dramas driven by the romance of the game like "The Natural." Most, even the comedies, are not exclusively sports movies, but the conduit for a bigger story or used as a metaphor for other parts of life.

For "42," the filmmakers had one of the best stories ever played out in this country, never mind on the field. Like "Bang the Drum Slowly" (about the friendship between a pitcher and his dying teammate) or "The Pride of the Yankees" (about the life of Lou Gehrig), most moviegoers will know the basics before entering the theater; some retain the story's smallest details like they do long-ago batting averages. A great movie satisfies both sets of fans.

The films that succeed give us as many memories as the real-life games. They remind us why we fell in love with the sport, its pace, camaraderie and built-in nostalgia. They eclipse, for those moments in the theater at least, today's noise of sports talk radio, steroids, announcers' ego-driven signature calls and fantasy leagues. They simply give us a good story and they give us some baseball.

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball," James Earl Jones told Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams." "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Ohhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come."

To Iowa and to baseball movies. We just can't help ourselves.