The president of the Pacific Coast League walked into the press box at Werner Park in Omaha, Neb. one day last week and did what he always does – extending his hand to introduce himself to media members he hasn’t met and reacquainting himself with those he has.
It’s fun to watch the reaction of people he meets for the first time.
"Hi, it’s good to meet you. I’m Branch Rickey."
They pull back in recognition of the name. Wait. Branch Rickey?
He’s the grandson of the Branch Rickey – some call him Branch, III – the man who signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
You feel like you are shaking hands with history when he introduces himself.
Sometimes, he even appears to step out of history.
It’s not out of the ordinary to see him wearing a bowtie, and he has a certain cadence and authority to his voice you never forget once you hear it. In fact, I heard it in Harrison Ford’s voice when he portrayed Rickey’s grandfather in the recently released movie "42."
"I heard my grandfather speak so often," he told me. "I knew where his pauses were and I knew his phraseology and his rhythm and it probably influenced the way I speak."
He says his grandfather’s voice had a more gravely, guttural sound than Ford portrayed, but overall he is quite pleased with the movie he has now seen four times – including once in Hollywood, at the premier.
"When my 18 cousins and myself saw his portrayal of Branch Rickey, we all came away uniformly impressed, surprised, very pleased – mostly pleased by the fact that after all these years, and this being the first major motion picture to try to do this story, there wasn’t a perversion of it," he said.
Yes, the movie was "Hollywood-ized," he says, "but the story was so close to the essentials of what really happened – the values and the character were all intact. I just ended up absolutely enjoying it."
He didn’t think it was important to point out the specific liberties that were taken in the movie, saying "some of the liberties taken don’t detract from the movie, they add to it. You would never know there were liberties taken unless you are steeped in the lore and have lived it like I’ve lived it for the last 50 years. I came away deeply surprised about how successfully the movie was written using the actual events to capture the truth."
After the premier, Ford asked Rickey what he thought. Rickey says he complimented him on his portrayal of his grandfather, but pointed out that his grandfather never swore like he does in the movie.
Rickey was a religious man, which did seep into the story when he quoted the Bible on several occasions, including once to Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher when he had a phone conversation with Rickey and Rickey overheard Durocher’s mistress in bed next to him.
"My grandfather had a tremendous capacity to win an argument without belittling or minimizing or shouting down or threatening, and he would do something such as that scene portrays in which he says, ‘Remember Leo, it says in the Bible that ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.’"
Beyond the portrayal of Rickey, there is a nuance to the movie that is easy to miss according to his grandson. Ford is a well-known, Hollywood heavyweight who portrayed a giant of a man who dared to break the color barrier. He was paired with Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Jackie Robinson. Boseman has a number of theater, television and movie credits, but nothing on the magnitude of this movie. As a relative unknown who has admitted that he didn’t expect to get the part, his naiveté seemed to bring an authentication to the way he portrayed Robinson, a player who was given a shot in the big leagues against all odds.
"Harrison Ford didn’t upstage Boseman, he lifted the role of Jackie Robinson that was being carried by a relative novice," he said. "What wonderful irony that the casting of the two characters so totally mimicked the reality."
Rickey says he doesn’t see the movie as an epic, like "Gone with the Wind" or "Doctor Zhivago," but instead he sees it as a societal conversation starter, much like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner."
"I have heard from so many parents who tell me they took their 12-year-old, their 14-year-old to it and they tell me it was wonderful," he said. "It brings our history alive in a way that is hard to do in a book."