Sharing a bond as the first wave of black players in the major leagues, Dodgers trailblazers like Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella often set aside their on-field rivalry to have dinner with Giants pioneers like Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson and Willie Mays.
Newcombe called the group "the best of friends" and said they dined together often.
Did Jackie Robinson go, too?
"Oh, no, Jackie would go home. He never cared about socializing with carousers like we were. ... Jackie didn't drink, didn't smoke and as a result he'd go home to his beautiful family and have dinner with them and enjoy them.
"He was a very strong family man. I want you to believe that. And don't you forget that."
Don't you forget that. It's a phrase Newcombe used more than once during a wide-ranging phone conversation in advance of "42," the Hollywood biopic opening Friday starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.
The film traces Robinson's journey from the Negro Leagues to his breaking of baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Newcombe, who debuted two years later and would become the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, still refers to his Dodgers roommate as "my idol."
Now, the former pitcher is doing interviews to help promote the film. He wants everyone to see it -- even Giants fans.
"Whenever I talk about Jackie, if I go out and give a speech somewhere, I'll stand up on the stage and I cry about some of the things that people tried to do to us because we wanted to play baseball like any other American,'' Newcombe said.
"I'm glad that Jackie was the man to tear those walls down, along with Branch Rickey."
Newcombe said he will leave it to movie fans to decide whether or not they like "42." He's in no rush to replace the late film critic Roger Ebert. But the man who won 1956 MVP and Cy Young awards is here to attest that the filmmakers got the casting right, starting with Boseman in the lead role.
"I congratulated him this morning when I met him for the first time. What a fine-looking young man he is and how well he represented Jackie Robinson,'' Newcombe said. "I told him, 'You are representing my idol.'
"And Harrison Ford, the way he represented Branch Rickey, they made him so close to Branch Rickey facially that I thought it was him. I said, 'That's Mr. Rickey!' With that the one eye of mine, I had to look again to make sure it wasn't him."
The movie's villain is Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the Philadelphia Phillies manager who torments Robinson with a torrent of racial epithets. (This is Newcombe's only factual quibble: While the manager did unleash verbal abuse at Robinson, "I don't think Ben Chapman called Jackie the N-word as many times as he did in the film." Newcombe said the commissioner would have suspended Chapman.)
Because the film ends with the 1947 regular season, Robinson's complicated, occasionally antagonistic relationship with the Giants will have to wait for a sequel. The only scene involving the storied rivals revolves around Robinson's first career home run, at the Polo Grounds.
At the end of his career, the Dodgers actually arranged to trade Robinson to the Giants. But unbeknownst to both teams, Robinson had decided to retire from baseball. Robinson wrote a letter to Giants owner Horace Stoneham, saying: "I assure you that my retirement has nothing to do with my trade to your organization. ... Again my thanks and continued success for you and the New York Giants."
But Newcombe recalled some bad blood during the '55 season, when Robinson, hustling for a bunt single, crashed into a second baseman named Davey Williams and broke his ribs. "It's like running into a steam-engine if you run into Jackie Robinson on a base," Newcombe said.
Alvin Dark, the Giants shortstop, sought revenge. And when he later smashed a double to left field, he refused to stop -- he wanted to blast Robinson, who was playing third base.
The story goes that Robinson saw what was coming and dropped the ball only because he was trying to smash a tag into Dark's head. "There was no way he was going to get Jackie Robinson," Newcombe said. "Jackie was too smart for him. But (Dark) tried."
Robinson and the Giants were also at odds during the memorable '51 pennant chase. The late Bill Rigney, who played for the Giants that season, once told The Mercury News that when Brooklyn swept the Giants to go 131/2 games up in August, Robinson made a point of taunting manager Leo Durocher.
"At the Brooklyn ballpark, the two clubhouses were very close together," Rigney said, "and Jackie had opened their door and he's beating on our door with a bat saying Leo -- he hated Leo -- 'How do you like it? How do you guys like it? I can smell Laraine's perfume, Leo. How do you like it?'"
But Rigney also said that when the Giants won the pennant that season, on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World,'' a handful of Dodgers, including Robinson, entered the Giants clubhouse to offer their congratulations.
That version of Robinson -- the class act -- is the one that Newcombe wants a new generation of fans to get to know by seeing "42."
"Let me ask you a question now: Did you ever read anywhere where there was some problem about Jackie Robinson and some of the things he did off the field?" Newcombe said.
"Never once. OK. Now that answers the whole question. Anybody who has anything on their mind, tell them Don Newcombe wants you to show him where Jackie Robinson was embarrassing to his family and to baseball -- and especially to Branch Rickey, a God-fearing man -- because of his actions off the field."
transcript of Dan Brown's interview
with Don Newcombe and a review of the upcoming movie "42," go to www.mercurynews.com/sports