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Jackie Robinson biopic made pitcher who faced him a villain: daughter

Baseball player Fritz Ostermueller is pictured with his wife Faye and daughter in this 1948 family photo released to Reuters by his daughter
Baseball player Fritz Ostermueller is pictured with his wife Faye and daughter in this 1948 family photo released to Reuters by his daughter

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - When a racist pitcher beans Jackie Robinson in the head in the new movie about the first black man to play major league baseball, Sherrill Duesterhaus wants everybody in the theater to know it's a lie.

Duesterhaus' father, Fritz Ostermueller, threw the pitch, but it did not hit Robinson in the head and there is no evidence he uttered, "You don't belong here and you never will," as shown in "42," the Warner Bros. Pictures film that opened in April.

"I respect Jackie Robinson, his story is so inspiring and it's good that it is out there, but not at the expense of someone's good name," said Duesterhaus, 66, of Joplin, Missouri.

Duesterhaus said she had been warned by a friend that the film was unflattering to her father, who died of cancer at age 50 when she was 11 years old.

But the scene in which he taunts Robinson and throws at his head was still a shock, she said.

"It just took my breath away," Duesterhaus said. "I thought, 'All these people are sitting here believing this and it didn't happen.' It broke my heart."

She said her father was a "kind and loving man" and neither she nor her mother can recall him talking badly about Robinson or any black player.

Duesterhaus produced an article from a Pittsburgh newspaper in 1947 in which her father said Robinson crowded the plate, making pitching to him difficult. Ostermueller played for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time.

"I told my wife the night before I pitched that I might have trouble with Robinson - that one of my pitches would hit him, if he didn't move back," Ostermueller said in the article.

"I knew, too, some people would say it was intentional. It wasn't at all, but in his first trip to the plate I hit him. After that, he moved back a couple of inches and showed me some respect."

TRUTH 'WENT SOUTH'

The pitch early in the 1947 season - Robinson's rookie year - sailed toward his head but he deflected it with his arm before falling to the ground, according to several accounts.

Robinson's teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers yelled at Ostermueller, but no fight broke out on the field as shown in the movie.

A Warner Bros. spokesman, Paul McGuire, had no comment in response to questions about the film and Duesterhaus' concerns.

She said the movie contained other errors, such as showing Ostermueller as a right-handed pitcher, when he threw left-handed.

"I enjoyed the movie," Duesterhaus said, "up until the truth went south."

Jonathan Eig, author of the 2007 book "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," said Robinson took verbal abuse from some players but there is no indication Ostermueller wanted to drive him out of baseball or threw at him because he was breaking the game's color barrier.

"I was surprised they chose that moment to dramatize the issue and picked Ostermueller of all people to be the villain," Eig said. "Even as I was watching the movie, I wondered if any of Ostermueller's kids will see this and what they would think."

Eig said Robinson was known to lean into pitches and swing wildly, making him vulnerable to getting hit.

Robinson was hit by more pitches than all but one other National League batter in 1947, and led the league in that category in 1948, according to baseball-reference.com.

Robert Butler, a former film critic for the Kansas City Star who now has an online movie review site, said the movie unnecessarily tainted Ostermueller's reputation.

"In my opinion, it's the result of bad research, laziness or outright malice," Butler said. "It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give (Ostermueller) a different name in the film. That said, anyone who goes to movies looking for true history is fighting a losing battle."

(Editing by David Bailey and Xavier Briand)

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