NEW YORK -- Thomas Tull grew up 45 minutes from Cooperstown, N.Y., made his first trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 7 and kept the story of Jackie Robinson close to his heart into adulthood. On Monday night, he was presented by Hank Aaron with one of the 2013 ROBIE Awards at the Jackie Robinson Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.
It was a nice trade, really. As the head of Legendary Entertainment, Tull is about to show the world and a new generation what history never should forget. His biopic movie "42" will hit theaters everywhere on April 12, and he brought a piece of it with him to share at the dinner.
All 1,200 attendees, including the impressive Jackie Robinson Scholars seated at the balcony tables, were spellbound as they got to watch about five minutes of the movie featuring this exchange between Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey character and Chadwick Boseman's Robinson:
"I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back," Rickey says.
"You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, and I'll give you the guts," Robinson replies.
The clip shows Robinson walking out of the dugout and onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. The last thing you see in the clip is a young woman standing with a baby, as Robinson looks at her.
Then in that moment you got chills, because you looked down from the screen and out onto the ballroom floor and were reminded that the woman, Rachel Robinson, is right there at one of the tables, at 90 still the personification of class and dignity and all that her husband stood for.
Rachel sat there amid endless ovations as those awards went not only to Tull, but also to Bruce Ratner, developer of the new Barclays Center Arena in Brooklyn; Carole Simpson, the pioneering network news anchor; and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the noted author, historian and PBS genealogy fact-finder. It was a night marked by maybe the greatest use of the Waldorf's dance floor that there ever was, by emcee Bill Cosby's enormous presence, by Jeffrey Osborne's rendition of the "Woo Woo Woo Song," and by that overarching spirit of Jackie that Tull and the Robinsons have just made a reality.
"It's the most important movie we'll ever make," said Tull, whose previous theatrical hits include the blockbuster "300," the record-breaking "Dark Knight" releases and "The Hangover" franchise.
"I don't think any of us can truly imagine, besides Rachel, who was truly his partner, what he went through and what it was like. Because as big a hero and as brave as I thought he was, the more you got into this project, the more detail you got, the more you cannot believe that a man had this type of courage, conviction, and I think all of us as Americans owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
"While we were trying to put this together, I remember another good friend of mine who was a pretty good baseball player, named Ken Griffey Jr., said to me that he was doing a clinic, I think down in Florida. He said he had asked all the kids, 'How many of you know who Jackie Robinson is?' And only a few of them raised their hand. Ken looked at me and said, 'That ... can't ... happen.'"
Then Tull told the crowd: "We're going to do our best to ensure that doesn't happen."
The Jackie Robinson Foundation is celebrating its 40th year. Rachel chose to honor her husband's memory by establishing it after Jackie's death in October 1972. In those four decades, the JRF has:
• Provided $55 million in scholarship assistance and direct program support to deserving students of color.
• Supported more than 1,400 JRF Scholars from 44 states and the District of Columbia who have attend 200 colleges and university across the country.
• Maintained a nearly 100-percent graduation rate, more than double the national average for African American and Hispanic students.
"I think he'd be very proud," Rachel said in an interview with MLB.com before the dinner. "He certainly would be proud of the students and of the organization. He would probably feel that it's extended his influence into future generations, because he felt that if he can inspire future generations, then we're really doing something."
As for the movie, Rachel added: "I'm very, very excited about the movie '42,' very pleased with it. It's authentic, it's powerful and it's very inspiring."
One of the most dramatic moments of the night came when Gates, during his acceptance speech, ticked off one landmark moment after another in black history -- all the way to President Barack Obama's place in today's White House -- that he said never would have happened had Jackie Robinson not succeeded in meeting Rickey's challenge.
"It's a tribute to Rachel that she would honor her husband's memory through education," Gates said, "because one of the special things about Jackie Robinson was not only his courage and athletic prowess, but the fact that he was an intellectual. He was a scholar -- a very superb student at UCLA, and I think that's why he was chosen to integrate the Major Leagues, because of that special combination of intellect and athletic ability. He was the first black scholar athlete.
"That's a great honor, and Rachel has preserved his memory and honored it by financing the education of so many scholars. That's the greatest tribute to her husband that she could have made, quite frankly." Gates said he can't wait to see the full movie, having just seen an extended clip.
"Americans have such short memories," he said. "We have to use all of the tools that we can to perpetuate historical memory, to preserve the achievement of our heroes. So this movie, a feature film, I hope and I think will do that. Because every American should know who and what Jackie Robinson was, what he stood for, what he suffered through and what he achieved."
Among those introduced by Cosby in the audience was William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala. Cosby noted that it was the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League who played at Rickwood Field, visited by Robinson when he played for the Kansas City Monarchs, and that the Birmingham Barons (no color) are about to open the 2013 season in a brand-new $65 million ballpark.