By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Sherrill Ostermueller-Duesterhaus watched the scene where her father, Fritz Ostermueller, pitches against Jackie Robinson, she held her husband’s hand.
“He held it so tight. I so wanted to jump and say: ‘No! It didn’t happen that way,’” she said. “But I couldn’t. You can’t imagine how much I wanted to say something.”
In the movie, Ostermueller purposely hits Robinson in the head with a fastball. His character then says: “You don’t belong here.”
Now, Ostermueller’s daughter — as well as news accounts at the time of the 1947 incident — says that what happened in the movie never happened on the field. Ostermueller, pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, actually threw a high inside pitch in the first inning that caught Robinson on the left wrist.
It’s a pivotal scene in “42 — The True Story of an American Legend,” the new movie about Robinson’s rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was meant to convey the overt racism that Robinson faced when he broke baseball’s color barrier, but it comes at great cost for Duesterhaus because her father was portrayed as a bigoted racist.
She said he was not that way at all.
Though she could not voice her displeasure with the scene during the movie, she’s speaking out now.
“There is nothing I can do now but try to set the record straight,” she said. “My father was a good pitcher. He was a good man. You know, it’s hard to defend yourself while you are no longer here. I’m just a daughter trying to defend her dad.”
At age 66, she is thankful that she has lived long enough to be able to do that.
After she saw the movie, she returned to her home in Joplin, where she has lived for nearly 10 years, and began poring over numerous scrapbooks about her father, who hailed from Quincy, Ill. The clips contain references to his minor league and major league games, including a 1929 doubleheader in which Ostermueller played for the Topeka Jayhawks against the Joplin Miners. The Miners lost.
Looking through the clips, she came across a faded envelope from The Pittsburgher Hotel. In it, her father had placed a newspaper clipping about his encounter with Robinson that she had never seen before.
For Duesterhaus, it was as if her father had known that his moment on the mound against Robinson was important for historical reasons and that he, too, wanted to set the record straight about what had happened.
“I was 6 months old when it happened,” she said. “I knew about it and that it was important because my mother had told me about it.”
But she never thought the incident would be used 66 years after the fact in what she says is an unfair representation.
The clipping in the hotel envelope tells the story of how Ostermueller had studied Robinson’s technique and had noticed that Robinson crowded the plate and lunged at every pitch.
Ostermueller said in his account of the incident: “He didn’t give the pitcher much room. I didn’t like that at all because I want my half of the heart of the plate, and no batter, no matter who he is, will crowd me out of my share.
“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. 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.”
Duesterhaus, a die-hard fan of baseball, said, “This is the way you play baseball.”
Ostermueller retired in 1948 after a long career in professional baseball. He died of cancer in 1957 at age 50. Duesterhaus, who was adopted, was the only child of Faye and Frederick “Fritz” Ostermueller.
It is the apparent lack of research that went into the movie that bothers Duesterhaus.
“A single Google search would show he was not hit in the head and that there was no fight on the mound,” she said. “They also would have learned that my father was a lefty. In the movie, he’s depicted as being a right-hander.
“Surely there were real incidents of racism that they could have used without making something up. You shouldn’t have to make anything up. Truth and fiction get blurred in this picture. It put a spotlight on my father for the wrong reason.
“I can understand Hollywood making a good story, but not at the expense of someone else’s memory and legacy. They never should have identified him by his real name in the movie.”
She also said that someone watching the movie might think that she grew up in a racist household.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” she said. “I was raised in a home with no racial overtones.”
Duesterhaus said: “I enjoyed the movie. It’s something that young people should see because of the courage of Jackie Robinson. He made baseball a better game and the world a better place.
“But there is another lesson young people could learn from this movie: Get the facts straight.”