Had his whole career been for this? To wear another man’s number?
And to wear it so proudly?
Late last spring, Jasha Balcom buttoned his thick wool jersey as he prepared for a day of filming “42,” the film about Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers ballplayer who desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947. A former ballplayer himself, the Duluth resident was one of the movie’s stunt men.
He also was the guy who wore the jersey from which the film, scheduled for release on Friday, took its name. When the action called for a stunt guy, he was No. 42, Jackie Robinson.
“I grew up hearing about Jackie Robinson,” said Balcom, 30. “To see this story unfold, to be a part of it was just amazing.”
Equally amazing is how a guy from Dublin, Ga., winds up in the credits for “42,” starring Chadwick Boseman as the second baseman who altered the face of professional baseball.
Balcom came to baseball at an early age. His dad, Charles, worked for Dublin’s parks and recreation department; it was only natural that his son would be on the city’s fields, too. Balcom thinks he played his first game at age 4.
He was a natural. In his freshman year, he won a spot on Dublin High School’s varsity team, the only ninth grader on the squad. The kid had to prove his worth, so he batted .430.
Three years later as a senior, Balcom batted .530. Major League Baseball came calling when Pittsburgh drafted him, but Balcom accepted a scholarship to the College of Charleston instead of turning pro. Balcom played there two years, then transferred to the University of Georgia.
Why? “I wanted to be a little closer to home,” she said, noting also offered a sports management major, which interested him.
OK. Any other reason? Balcom smiled. “It was Georgia,” he said. “That’s where I had always wanted to play.”
He played one year, then accepted an offer from the Cubs who drafted him in the 33rd round. In 2003, he was in Arizona, playing for Chicago’s Mesa affiliate.
“Growing up in Georgia, I was used to seeing trees,” said Balcom. “There were no trees out there.”
A succession of teams followed, clubs in Boise, Peoria, Jupiter. Balcom saw a good bit of the United States from the windows of buses grinding from one small stadium to the next. It was an education and an epiphany: needed at home and wanting to make more money, Balcom gave up baseball.
That lasted two years before the game again whispered to him. In 2007, he played a final year in an independent league, batting .300 for the South Georgia Peanuts of Albany. Balcom got married, had a child and hung up his glove. He founded a Duluth sports-training facility, Hittersbox. He figured he’d spend the rest of his life showing youngsters how to hit the curve.
Then, a year ago, an old teammate from his Cubs days called. Movie executives were looking for young African-American men to play in a Negro Leagues segment of “42.” Was Balcom interested? Does Jason Heywood have a big swing? Balcom sent photos and a brief summary of his baseball career.
He got another call, this time, from Allan Graf, the film’s stunts coordinator.
“You favor Boseman,” Graf said.” “You could be his double.”
Credit: JOHNNY CRAWFORD / JCRAWFORD@AJC.
Credit: JOHNNY CRAWFORD / JCRAWFORD@AJC.
So in May and June last year, Balcom wore the baggy pants and billowy shirt that marked baseball players of seven decades ago. They filmed at minor league stadiums in Birmingham and Macon to portray Robinson’s early years in the Negro Leagues.
Balcom made a convincing 42, said Graf. “Listen, I wouldn’t have had him if he wasn’t believable,” said Graf. “He wouldn’t have had a job. I wouldn’t have, either.”
The film moved to Chattanooga to capture Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers. Technicians transformed segments of AT&T Field, home of the Dodgers affiliate Lookouts, to make it resemble Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played before relocating to Los Angeles.
Balcom recalls going to work at 6 a.m. and waiting for his call. His specialty: running bases and sliding.
Care to elaborate? Balcom gave his head a slight shake. “I did some slides,” he said. “I ran some bases.”
Dear reader, you’ll have to see the film.