Brian Helgeland, who directed the movie "42," which tells the story of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson breaking the major league baseball color barrier during the 1947 season, said he needed little in the way of literary leeway to tell the tale. The events as they happened were far more incredible than anything he could have made up, Helgeland said.
And I agree with The Eagle's Derek Gentile, who opined in his column a couple of weeks back that any historical or factual transgressions should be waived in light of the story line itself, which was both significant and dramatic.
But when a city native gets brushed back by a director's pitch and doesn't get credit where credit is certainly due, then it's time to step up to the plate and set the record straight.
Gene Hermanski, who spent the early years of his life living on Wahconah Street about a relay throw beyond the entrance to Wahconah Park, was in the Opening Day lineup at Ebbets Field to begin the 1947 season. He played left field for the Dodgers and had one hit in four trips to the plate. It could have been a man from Mars playing the corner outfield position on that day as all eyes were on Robinson at first base.
"That day might have been the most important game played in the history of major league baseball," said Paul Hermanski, a Pittsfield resident and native of the city who played baseball for Pittsfield High during the springs of 1969-70 before tacking on a long career as a member of the semipro Dalton Collegians.
Paul's father, Louis, was Gene's first cousin. Gene and his family moved from Pittsfield to Newark, N.J., when Gene was about 5. The youngster would grow up to star at East Newark High and at Seton Hall College before being drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics and then traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"He used to take the subway from Newark to Ebbets Field," Paul said.
So, where did Helgeland trip up Hermanski? There is a poignant moment during the film where Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese runs over to Robinson prior to the start of an inning and puts he arm around him. The game was at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River that separates Ohio from Kentucky and, in essence, the North from the South. There had been death threats made against Robinson and the Louisville-born Reese's gesture was meant to show solidarity within the Brooklyn ranks.
In the movie, Reese tells Robinson that maybe the next day all the Dodgers would wear Robinson's No. 42 to make it harder if indeed there was a sniper present. Helgeland has since admitted that it was Hermanski who made the suggestion.
The director said that he hadn't really worked Hermanski into a main character but that the line was too good not to use. "So I gave it to Pee Wee's character," he said.
The movie also had some game action with Robinson and Hermanski belting back-to-back doubles to help win a game against the Phillies. The actor hitting as Hermanski was swinging right; Gene threw right, but hit left.
Paul and his younger brother, Danny, who watched the film at different times obviously picked up on that.
"We might have been the only two who did," Paul said.
Ahh, make that three.
When Robinson walks into the Brooklyn locker room for the first time, it's Hermanski who in the film comes right over and introduces himself to Robinson.
"Hermanski -- I play for the Brooklyn Dodgers," the character says as he reaches out to shake Robinson's hand.
"There's a scene early that shows the Dodger lineup written with chalk on the wall behind where [Dodger owner] Branch Rickey is sitting," Danny said. "Then those other scenes. You're kind of sitting there watching in awe. I mean it's a family member being portrayed."
Paul added that the character who played Hermanski even looked like the Gene he knew. Danny added that Gene had been a pall bearer at Robinson's funeral.
"I think [Jackie's wife] Rachel Robinson remembered Gene as a kind man and helped get those scenes with Gene in the movie," Danny said. "I've read that she and Jackie were always a bit overwhelmed that Gene would make a suggestion about everyone wearing the same number."
Gene came back to the Berkshires a couple of times a year to golf. He always brought the two boys gifts. Paul still has a Dodger glove he received while Danny has a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. He also has the box of clippings that Gene's mother saved. They were mostly from the New York and New Jersey daily's.
"The Dodgers, the time period they were in and Gene were all portrayed pretty accurately," Paul said about the movie he's already seen twice.
Gene, for his part, played briefly for Brooklyn in 1943, and then lost two years to World War II. He was stationed in the states and at one point was playing with a touring team of major-leaguers who were being managed by Babe Ruth. It's said that Ruth fell in love with Hermanski's left-handed swing. Rickey, too, was in Hermanski's corner, although the city native did hold out one year.
"Hermanski holds out, Rickey fumes," the headline read.
Hermanski came back in 1946, and in 1947 helped Brooklyn along with Robinson win the National League pennant. The Yankees won the World Series in seven games.
Brooklyn again won the pennant in 1949, but this time was swept by the Yankees, Hermanski played eight seasons with the Dodgers before finishing with a couple of years with the Pirates and Cubs. His best individual year was in 1948 _ between the two World Series seasons -- when he hit 15 home runs, drove in 60 and stole 15 bases. He was 7 for 32 in the two World Series with a couple of triples.
Hermanski was living in Florida when he died a couple of years ago at age 90. He would have been 93 on Saturday.
Some cool sidebars for those who love baseball history regarding Robinson's debut at Ebbets Field.
Only three umpires worked the game, with Babe Pinelli behind the plate. You've heard that name before? Well, it was Pinelli who was behind the plate for the New York Yankees' Don Larsen's perfect game against Brooklyn during Game 5 of the World Series in 1956. For most umpires, it would have been plenty to be the home plate umpire for either game. Pinelli struck gold twice.
The Larsen game, by the way, was Pinelli's final behind the plate. He worked the field for games 6 and 7, and then retired. Talk about going out on top.
The umpire at first base for Robinson's debut was future Hall-of-Famer Al Barlick.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.