’42’ gets Branch Rickey family’s blessing

When the Rickey family learned that Harrison Ford would portray former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey in the movie “42,” they were disappointed.

“There was a previous production that was somewhat developing, and Robert Redford was supposed to be cast as my grandfather,” Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said. “Everybody in our family could see how Robert Redford, with some of his mannerisms and ways that he goes about some of the characters he’s portrayed, could carry off my grandfather very successfully.

“When Indiana Jones was suddenly named as the probable lead, I think everybody in our family suddenly said, ‘Whoa! This isn’t going to work.’ And it’s a shame that they would pick somebody that’s so distinctively different from my grandfather.”

But after seeing “42,” Rickey III — who was at Cashman Field on Wednesday for the Cashman Center’s 30th anniversary reception — changed his mind.

“When I came out of the movie, I just shook my head,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that Harrison Ford had applied himself that rigorously. He went back and tried for the authenticity of recreating Branch Rickey. He does an amazing job.”

In 1945, Rickey became the first executive to break baseball’s color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson, who became the big leagues’ first African-American player.

The film, which has received good reviews, chronicles Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“It’s kind of a reawakening of the events of 1945 to ’47,” Rickey III said. “It’s really bringing back to life the achievement. I think it’s a remarkable movie.”

Rickey III has seen the film, which opened Friday, four times, attending two premieres in New York — at the invitation of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s 90-year-old widow — and in Los Angeles, which he attended with 23-year-old actress Kelley Jakle, Branch Rickey’s great-granddaughter who plays the role of Alice in the film and who sang “God Bless America” at Dodger Stadium on Monday in honor of Jackie Robinson Day.

Rickey III was 19 when his grandfather died in 1965, five years after his father, Branch Rickey Jr., passed away. He was very close with both men.

“From the time I was 6, I lived across a farm pasture from him,” he said of his grandfather. “I ran across the pasture, it seemed like, every day and on the weekends several times a day. I had a special relationship with my grandfather. I really did. He was very, very important.”

Rickey III, whose full name is Branch Barrett Rickey, went by Barry until after he graduated high school, when his grandfather asked him to start using his first name.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Son, I’d like you to start using your given first name and carry on my name,’ ” he said. “That was a big jump for me, because Barry is a very easy common name. You start going up to people and say call me Branch, it’s a hard first name.

“It’s still difficult because that name, Branch Rickey, has slipped some from sports awareness over the years.”

Thanks to “42,” the Rickey name is back in the spotlight, alongside Robinson’s. The two names forever will be linked, and the two families remain close.

While Rickey III, 67, was invited to be an adviser on the proposed film starring Redford, he declined an offer to take part in “42” in a gesture of respect toward Rachel Robinson — who, while discussing the Redford movie with Rickey III over lunch one day, told him, “I don’t want a Branch Rickey movie. I want a Jackie Robinson movie.”

“I have Rachel on such a high pedestal,” Rickey III said. “She’s the only person I’ve ever described as American royalty, and I hold her in that regard. I wanted her to have the movie exactly as she wanted, so I did not participate.”

Rickey III sent an email to a group of 79 family members explaining his decision not to take part in the film.

“I said, ‘You have to understand this started with a handshake in 1945,’ ” he said. “The trust between the Rickey and Robinson families has evolved from that, and it has never been violated.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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