P. Jay Sidney: The Heroic Actor Who Fought to Integrate Early TV

P. Jay Sidney, who was born as Sidney Parhm Jr. on April 8, 1916 in Virginia, was a groundbreaking actor who fought to help integrate television starting in the 1950s. He often was relegated to small walk-on parts such as doormen and waiters.  But the African-American actor also played some substantial parts as he struggled to both make a living and to fight against the racism of the times.

Sidney’s Acting Career

Sidney started out with a career on stage and on radio.  But then he began making a living in TV starting in 1951.  He garnered some substantial roles such as that of Private Palmer on The Phil Silvers Show.

Sidney continued to take what roles he could get.  He appeared in more than one-hundred and seventy shows. He also did voice-over work and took roles in advertisements, such as Waxin Jackson in Ajax commercials.

Sidney’s Battle Against Discrimination

Sidney’s activism was fueled by the discrimination he saw in the limited roles given to African-American actors. He marched. And he advocated for a boycott against Lever Brothers for only using black talent for commercials aimed at African-Americans. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. He picketed. And he spoke out when he saw discrimination and encouraged others to do the same.

A December 7, 2015 article in The New Yorker, “American Untouchable,” by Emily Nussbaum discusses some of the toll that the discrimination took on Sidney.  His story is also recounted in Donald Bogle’s book, Primetime Blues. As in the case of baseball player Jackie Robinson, one may see that standing up to racism is not easy.

But as in the case of Robinson, we need to remember P. Jay Sidney.  He was a dignified man who did a job while also standing up for something greater.

Below, Sidney plays a small role as a doctor in a 1961 episode of Route 66, “Goodnight Sweet Blues.” In this opening clip of the episode, you may see Sidney at around the 3:16 mark, as a family doctor getting some assistance from a white cardiologist.

Sidney never got to see equal representation of African-American actors on TV or in Hollywood.  But he helped us take an early step toward that destination. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and Sidney’s final role in a movie was playing a bellman in A Kiss Before Dying (1991).

Yet, other actors, like Ossie Davis recognized that they were able to get jobs because of Sidney’s activism. Sidney passed away on September 30, 1996, and while an increase in television channels has created more opportunities for non-white actors, Sidney’s legacy can be seen in critiques like the recent Oscar So White campaign in Hollywood.

Sidney’s battle, which is a battle for all of us, continues.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Jackie Robinson Takes the Field

    On April 15, 1947 as a soft breeze blew across Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson took his position at first base to play his first official Major League Baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was 28 years old, having served in the U.S. Army and played in the Negro American League before Dodger general manager Branch Rickey recruited Robinson in 1945 to join the Dodger organization.

    On this date against the Boston Braves, Robinson broke the color barrier that had existed in baseball for more than fifty years.  The last such player before Robinson was catcher Fleetwood Walker who played for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.

    Robinson’s major league career that began that day would not be easy. But Robinson triumphed over the hate he encountered, both as a man and as a player, making him the greatest hero of any sport.

    Many were hostile to him, but many others admired Robinson at the time. The radio even played a song about him in 1949, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball?

    Baseball eventually recognized his accomplishments too. On this date in 1997, Major League Baseball retired his number 42, making it the first number retired for all teams.

    Robinson’s Major League Debut

    To go back and relive that sunny day at Ebbets Field on this date in 1947, listen to this 2007 NPR interview with writer Jonathan Eig, who wrote a book about Robinson’s first year called Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. The interview discusses the historic game played this date in 1947.

     

    Movies About Robinson

    In 2013, a very good movie bearing the name of Robinson’s number 42 was released. But another earlier movie from 1950 told his story starring Jackie Robinson himself in The Jackie Robinson Story.

    Below is the entire film, although the picture quality is not great. The recreation of his Major League debut begins around the 54-minute mark. The movie condenses events to give Robinson a triple on a day the first baseman went hitless.  In the real game, he did score the go-ahead run after reaching on an error.

    Another Rookie Debuting On This Date

    Finally, here is a trivia question about that April 15, 1947 game. On that date, one other rookie besides Robinson took the field for the Dodgers that day, who was it?

    As explained in the video above, the other rookie was Spider Jorgensen.  Jorgenson was called up on such short notice that he did not have a glove. But his new teammate Jackie Robinson loaned Jorgensen one of his gloves.

    Using that glove, third-baseman Jorgensen fielded a ball hit by Boston’s Dick Culler, throwing it to Robinson at first base to make the first out of the game.  The Dodgers won by a score of 5–3.

    At the end of the 1947 season, the Dodgers won the National League Pennant.  And Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award, which is now called the Jackie Robinson Award.

    1950 photo of Jackie Robinson and The Jackie Robinson Story via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “42”: Great Story, Good Movie (Review)

    The previews for 42, the new movie about baseball player Jackie Robinson, tempted me to wait until the movie came out on video. I feared that the movie would not have much that I did not already know, and the preview made me wonder if the movie was going to be more like a made-for-TV movie. But I love baseball movies and Jackie Robinson’s story is worthy of the big screen, so I headed out to the local movie theater. While the movie may not rise to the level of the best baseball movies, it is still entertaining and worth your time in the theater.

    42 covers the story of how Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, came to break the code of Major League Baseball’s ban on black baseball players. The film does not cover all of Robinson’s career, but it covers his rise from the Negro Leagues through his first season in the Majors. Boseman does an excellent job of portraying the hero as a human being, and Nicole Beharie also does a great job of playing Robinson’s wife, Rachel. The most well-known actor in the cast is Harrison Ford, who in an unusual role for him, plays Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.

    Some have complained that writer-director Brian Helgeland focuses too much on the white men like Rickey. With no standing to defend the movie’s perspective, I do understand the complaint and would like to see a film that focused almost entirely on Robinson’s view. But 42 is trying to do something else by showing the historical context of Robinson’s great achievement. I also appreciated that Helgeland did not settle for showing stereotypes and that he featured some good people in the South as well as racists in New York.

    One minor weakness in the film is that it only shows Robinson’s first season, and it left me wanting more. So 42 suffers from some of the problems with biopics that can only cover so much time.

    42 also suffers a little from trying to fit into the baseball movie genre. Baseball films often end with an important baseball game win (or loss), and 42, like the recent Moneyball (2011), tries to fit in that genre but comes a little short because of real life. During Robinson’s first season in the Majors in 1947, his team did win the pennant and the movie portrays the climactic scene of Robinson hitting the home run to clinch it. But since the Dodgers won the division over the Cardinals by five games that season, it was somewhat lacking in drama. The movie does not follow Robinson into the World Series, apparently because the Yankees beat Robinson’s team four games to three. So reality took away a little of the traditional baseball climax, but, of course, the drama of 42 is really on Jackie Robinson succeeding when so much was against him, and the movie does a good job of telling the real story.

    The movie does do an excellent job of showing some of the difficulties that Jackie Robinson encountered from opposing players, opposing managers, and his own teammates. And you get to see the true strength of a man who had the courage to turn the other cheek for a higher cause (although not depicted in the film, by 1949 when other black players were established in Major League Baseball, Robinson could finally fight back).

    Conclusion: Overall, 42 is an engaging story about some things you knew about and probably some things you did not. It tells the story of a real hero and should be required viewing for every child in America. For a bonus video, here is Jackie Robinson appearing on What’s My Line? after he retired from baseball, and you can see at the end how he still speaks fondly of Branch Rickey.

    Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me?: Rotten Tomatoes gives 42 a critics rating of 77% and an audience rating of 88%, which makes sense because fans may appreciate the true-life story and care less if the movie is too predictable. Jeffrey M. Anderson at Combustible Celluloid says that 42 is “a wonderful, huge, glossy, mythical portrait of America’s growing pains.” By contrast, Rick Kisonak at Seven Days concludes that Jackie Robinson “deserves a movie that strives to be at least half as great as he was, a movie better than a cookie-cutter Hollywood biopic like this one.”

    Bonus History Lesson: At the end of 42, Helgeland shows scenes of modern baseball players, starting with Yankee Derek Jeter for some reason, wearing Jackie Robinson’s number 42 on the annual Jackie Robinson Day. I wish, though, that Helgeland had shown a scene of the baseball player who actually inspired the idea of having players wear Jackie Robinson’s number on that day, Ken Griffey, Jr.

    How does “42” rank among the great baseball movies? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    It Wasn’t Easy: Sonny Brown’s Home Run

    After my favorite baseball team had a heartbreaking loss, I picked up my copy of Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America (2007) for some comfort. While reading it I came across a story from Buck O’Neil about his days in the Negro League that put into perspective my puny broken baseball dreams.

    Willard “Sonny” Brown

    In the book, Posnanski relates O’Neil’s story about Willard “Sonny” Brown, who O’Neil had managed on the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson made it to the Major Leagues, the St. Louis Browns signed Brown and his Monarchs teammate, Hank Thompson.

    The Dodgers had worked to try to prepare Robinson for the pressure of the Majors with a stint in the Minor Leagues.  By contrast, the Browns immediately sent Brown and Thompson to the Majors. There, the two men became the first black teammates on a Major League team.

    By the end of the 1947 season, though, the Browns sent both men back to the Negro League’s Monarchs. Thompson would eventually return to the Major Leagues and have a successful career (although a troubled life), but it was Brown’s only time in the league.

    The First African-American to Hit an American League Home Run

    When Buck O’Neil visited school kids across America, though, he told them about Sonny Brown. And he would tell about one particular at bat.

    Late in Brown’s one season in the Majors, on August 13, the team had already given up on the player. But on that Sunday, Brown came in as a pinch hitter in the second game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers.

    Brown was surprised about being called into the game.  And he did not even have a bat. So, he picked up a damaged bat of the team’s best hitter, Canadian-born Jeff Heath.

    At the plate, Sonny Brown connected with a pitch, driving it so it smashed off the center field fence that was 428 feet away. Brown ran around the bases at full speed, turning the hit into an inside-the-park home run.  It was the first home run by a black man in the American League.

    But there were no congratulations in the dugout for the historic hit. None of Brown’s teammates even looked at him. The only acknowledgement Sonny Brown saw was that the notoriously short-tempered Jeff Heath took his bat that Brown had used and looked at it. Then, in disgust, he smashed the bat against the wall.

    “It Wasn’t Easy”

    Buck O’Neil used to ask the school children what lesson they learned from the fact that the player had broken Willard Brown’s bat after he hit a home run. He would tell them, “The lesson, children, is that it wasn’t easy.”

    In Patty Griffin’s song, “Don’t Come Easy” from Impossible Dream (2004) she sings:

    I don’t know nothing except change will come;
    Year after year what we do is undone;
    Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run;
    I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home.

    Sonny Brown did find a home. The World War II veteran continued to have a successful career in the Negro Leagues.  He ended his career there a few years later with a .355 lifetime batting average, a lot of home runs, and six All Star appearances.

    Brown then continued playing baseball in Texas and in Puerto Rico until he retired from the sport with his nickname “Ese Hombre” (The Man) in 1957.

    Brown — who was born on June 26, 1911 in Shreveport, Louisiana — died in Houston, Texas in 1996. Ten years after his death in 2006, Major League Baseball gave him the recognition he deserved. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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