When you watch the movie “42,” which tells the story of racial integration of major-league baseball with Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, pay close attention to the number of times the name Spider Jorgensen pops up.
John Jorgensen, who attended Folsom High School (1936) and Sacramento City College (1939, 1941), was an integral part of the movie, according to writer-director Brian Helgeland, because he was the only connection to Robinson from the minors to the majors.
Jamie Ruehling, a 39-year-old assistant principal, baseball coach and athletic director at Grundy County High School in Grundy, Tenn., portrays Jorgensen. When being cast for the part, he did not know who Jorgensen was or what role he played in history.
In the movie, Jorgensen’s name first comes up on the opening day of spring training in 1947, when Rickey introduces Robinson to Montreal manager Clay Hopper. The three chat and then Hopper says: “You can probably toss it with those fellas over there” and then shouts, “Jorgensen, come here!”
Jorgensen is mentioned a number of other times in the movie and seen even more often.
One thing that’s not in “42,” but would have been a nice touch, was the gesture Robinson made toward Jorgensen, then 27, when both made their major-league debuts on April 15, 1947. Also starting for the Dodgers that day was second-year catcher and future All-Star Bruce Edwards of Sacramento.
Less than 24 hours before the first pitch, Jorgensen, scheduled to play in the minors for Montreal, was called up from the Dodgers’ spring training site in Havana, Cuba, to replace Arky Vaughan at third base. While Jorgensen was headed to Brooklyn, his gear was headed to Syracuse, N.Y. As a result, he had to borrow cleats and a glove. The glove belonged to Robinson, who played first base that season.
“I came into Ebbets Field on Opening Day, scared to death,” Jorgensen told Phil Elderkin of the Christian Science Monitor. “I didn’t think I was going to play. I didn’t have any equipment with me. My glove, bats and everything else went to Syracuse because the Montreal club opened up there. Then Jackie comes over and says, ‘Here, use my second-base glove.’ ”
Robinson and Jorgensen made history together, recording the first-ever out involving an African American major leaguer when Jorgensen fielded a grounder and threw to Robinson for the 5-3 putout.
In addition to playing high school and college ball in Sacramento, Jorgensen played in the old semipro Placer-Nevada and Sacramento Winter leagues, where he was discovered by Dodgers scouts Bill Svilich (Sacramento) and Tom Downey.
Jorgensen played in 267 major-league games in parts of five seasons, hitting .266 with nine home runs and 106 RBIs. He appeared in the 1947 and 1949 World Series with the Dodgers. Following his rookie season, he hurt his throwing arm while hunting and injured it even worse during spring training.
In the middle of the 1950 season, the left-handed hitter was traded to the New York Giants and made his last appearance in the majors on June 30, 1951. But he played 10 more seasons in the minor leagues.
Jorgensen spent 14 seasons in the minors, hitting .280 with 118 homers and 556 RBIs. During four winters from 1950 to 1953, La Arana, as he was known in Cuba, played for the Havana Rojos, who won three Cuban Professional Baseball League titles.
After retiring, Jorgensen returned home and coached the 1967 Fair Oaks American Legion squad that won the North Division championship. One member of that team was Dusty Baker (Del Campo), a 26th-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves. Jorgensen was responsible for talking Baker out of accepting a basketball/football scholarship and signing with the Braves.
In 1968, Jorgensen returned to major-league baseball as a scout for the expansion Kansas City Royals. He also scouted for the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs.
In 1996, Jorgensen was part of the first class of Sacramento City College Athletic Hall of Fame inductees and was the first SCC player to make the major leagues. While still scouting for the Cubs at 84, he died on Nov. 6, 2003.