I saw the movie 42 when it first came out (pretty good!) and I returned to it in order to take a closer look at the minor league elements as part of the Minors in the Movies series. The film depicts a portion of Jackie Robinson’s time in with the International League’s Montréal Royals, and upon second viewing, the minor league elements were more interesting than I had remembered.
Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) sends Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) to Florida to participate in “minor league spring training” with the Royals, with the hope of making the minor league roster. This is such a foreign concept to baseball fans of today, since we are accustomed to seeing select minor leaguers simply joining up with the big league club for spring training, and then returning to their minor league assignments. Furthermore, players don’t really “try out” for Triple-A teams these days–they are just promoted from lower levels as needed.
I did a cursory search for more information about these practices, but haven’t yet uncovered any good descriptions. It does seem very believable though, particularly in the late forties, when baseball was close to peak popularity. Before the American and National Leagues spread geographically beyond their clusters in the Northeast and Midwest, Triple-A leagues like the International League and American Association fielded teams in large cities that had interests beyond simply feeding the rosters of their MLB parent clubs. Heck, this was around the time that the Pacific Coast League dropped major league affiliation and was a third major league. So it is reasonable to suggest that Triple-A teams would have their own spring training, but it certainly seems odd compared to what we see today.
As the movie depicts it, the Royals have their spring training in the same city as their parent club (Brooklyn) but at a separate, more low-budget facility. Robinson visits this field, where he is met by glares from members of another minor league club set to play against the Royals–the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were a member of the American Association, so it’s strange to see them square up against an IL team. However, at that time in the forties the Dodgers had two Triple-A teams: the Royals in the IL and the Saints in the AA. So what we see here is basically a scrimmage between two Brooklyn affiliates, happening in the same city that Brooklyn has their spring training. Fascinating. Here are some fleeting shots of the Saints that I managed to grab.
The next game that we see is another scrimmage against yet another American Association team: the Indianapolis Indians. At that time, Indy was the sole Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Braves. Check it out.
The spring training portion of the film wraps up with an exhibition game between the Royals and the Dodgers. This isn’t too different than how major league teams today will often play an exhibition game or two against their Triple-A or Double-A affiliates in the spring. The big difference is that today, these games are typically squeezed in between the end of the Cactus/Grapefruit League action and the start of the regular season. The film suggests that in the forties, it was all just part of the spring training stew. Food for thought.
Following that scene, Branch informs Jackie that he has made the team–he is now an official member of the Broo….er….Montréal Royals. His minor league try-out was a success, and Jackie can join up with the Royals as they visit the Garden State to take on the Jersey City Giants. This International League match-up is the only regular season minor league game shown in the film. Luckily, there was one long, lingering shot of the Giants’ pitcher.
And that’s about it for the minors in the movie 42.
The main takeaway that I have from watching this again–and really, one of the main things I remembered from seeing it in 2013–is how awesome all the uniforms are. The filmmakers contracted with Ebbets Field Flannels to make all the minor league uniforms in the film. As many have come to expect from Ebbets, the quality is outstanding and the details are authentic: heathered texture of the road grays, the stitching that holds the felt M onto the Royals cap, the zipper on the Jersey City jersey. Just awesome and inspiring. Here is an interview about how the process worked.
So, 42 filmmakers, the MLG would like to thank you for making me think hard about minor league spring training practices in the 1940s and thank you for commissioning the beautiful minor league uniforms. Good stuff.
Click here to read more entries in the Minors in the Movies series.