Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who's That In The "42" Trailer?

I had heard some good things about the trailer for "42", the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic.

Then, I watched it. You should too. It's really cool. The fun for Pirates fans begins at the 1:00 mark.

My first reaction: Oh boy! Meet the most evil player in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates!

I think Warner Bros. must have missed the memo stating that only the New York Yankees are
to be used as the embodiment of pure evil in major motion pictures about baseball.

Who is that pitcher seen beaning Jackie Robinson in the head? Did this really happen?

The trailer provides us with the clue we need. When the pitcher turns his back you can clearly see his jersey #21. It didn't take long to learn the mystery pitcher being portrayed on screen is a real person.

Fritz Ostermueller pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1944-1948. Over those five season the southpaw started 106 games, posting a 49-42 record and a 3.48 ERA. It was the final stop of his 15 year career, that previously included time with Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers.

The actor playing Ostermueller in "42" is Linc Hand. The beaning scene was filmed in Birmingham, Alabama earlier this year. A local newspaper reported on Hand's role, and added a few details on the scene we see in the trailer.
Ostermueller hit Robinson with a pitch early in his groundbreaking rookie season and was also on the mound in June 1947 when Robinson led his team to a 4-2 victory against the Pirates by stealing home.
A quick look at Baseball Reference located the first game referenced in the article.

On May 17, 1947, Ostermueller scattered 12 Dodger hits in a complete game shutout victory at Forbes Field. The Pirates scored 4 runs on 4 hits to create the winning margin. The box score shows Robinson went 2-4, and was hit by a pitch, the fourth HPB of the season for him.

Was the incident as violent and mean-spirited as it appears in the "42" trailer? The 2008 book, "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season", includes the original reporting of the game by the Pittsburgh Courier's Wendell Smith.
...pitcher Fritz Ostermueller threw a fastball up and in. Robinson, unable to duck it in time, raised his arm to protect his face and fell to the ground. 
"When the ball hit him a deathly silence hovered over the entire park," Smith wrote. "Jackie was on the ground grimiacing in pain." The Dodger bench emptied as teammates checked to see if he was all right. As soon as Robinson got up and ran to first, some of his teammates began shouting threats at Ostermueller. 
Though the taunting was profane, Smith interpreted the Dodgers' attacks on the pitcher as "expressions of their regard for Robinson." Later in the game, Frankie Gustine singled and went to first, where he apologized to Robinson on Ostermueller's behalf. "I'm sure he didn't mean it," Gustine told Robinson, adding that he, too, was happy to see the rookie getting on well in the big leagues.
The trailer seems to indicate that the beaning incident involving Ostermueller is some kind of retaliation against Robinson, but there's nothing I can find to support that being the case.

The box score for the game on the Retrosheet website shows Robinson was hit by the pitch in the top of the first inning, after the Dodgers lead-off man had grounded out. It's Robinson's rookie year, and the first series of the season between the Dodgers and Pirates. Safe to assume, Jackie Robinson and Fritz Ostermueller had never faced one another on the diamond previously. Smith's report also indicates that Ostermueller was apologetic after the incident.

Most of us understand that any movie based on actual events is going to take some liberties with the truth in the interest of pacing or simply telling a better story. However, if Fritz Ostermueller is indeed portrayed as a  villain in "42", I wonder if it would have been better to simply make up a fictional name for the Pirates pitcher who beans Robinson.

Honestly, I had never heard the name Fritz Ostermueller until my curiosity about the "42" trailer led me to him. I'm now wondering how much the line between truth and fiction is blurred in this movie. Whether a forgotten, yet successful, Pirates pitcher from the past is having his name dragged back into the spotlight for the wrong reason.