Balcom humbled to run in Jackie's footsteps
Former Cubs farmhand is stunt double in new movie '42'
Jasha Balcom knew most of the Jackie Robinson story because his father had told him.
He knew that Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier. He knew that Robinson had endured horrific racism and had helped pioneer the American civil rights movement. He was well aware that Robinson was a Rookie of the Year, a Most Valuable Player, a Hall of Famer and his No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig in 1997.
And that was all before Balcom learned a lot more by becoming Jackie Robinson.
Well, sort of.
If you've seen the movie "42," you've watched actor Chadwick Boseman recreate the iconic presence of Robinson on film and you've seen Harrison Ford's elegance as Branch Rickey. You've also seen Jasha Balcom, whether you realized it or not.
Balcom was a stunt double for Boseman in many of the film's sports-action scenes. A friend of Balcom's knew someone affiliated with the film, photos and a bio were sent, and before he knew it, the former star outfielder from Dublin (Ga.) High School, the University of Georgia and the Chicago Cubs' Minor League system was suiting up in a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers No. 42 uniform and getting after it on the basepaths and in the field.
"I matched the body type and the athleticism that they were looking for," says Balcom, who had never appeared in any movies or TV shows and had never done any stunt work. "It went from maybe shooting a few scenes to taking off for two months."
The whirlwind led him from old Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., which doubled as Robinson's Brooklyn home park of Ebbets Field, to diamonds in Macon, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., and back to Atlanta, where Balcom lives.
It also almost landed him on the disabled list.
Two weeks into the shoot, Balcom ran into another stunt double and went down hard, cracking a rib. He finished the day's work, went back to his hotel sore, slept poorly, and realized the next day that he had to sit out a few scenes.
"I wanted to play hard, to really show the grit and the fight within [Jackie Robinson], to show the phenomenal athlete that he was and really put on a good performance," Balcom says. "And take after take, there was a lot of sliding, a lot of diving. It was all things I was used to doing. But it's unnatural to run and slide when you're not in a real game situation -- especially over and over again.
"It took a lot to channel that, and on top of it we'd be shooting until 3 or 4 or 5 o'clock into the morning. It took a lot to get yourself ready."
It's something he'll never forget.
"I'm very humbled," Balcom says. "I was just amazed to be able to run in his shoes, to follow that man's footsteps ... literally running in his footsteps.
"And it was awesome to get back out there on the baseball field. Being that I was out of baseball for several years, to get a uniform on and help tell a great story was more than I could have asked for. It was very surreal being back out there, seeing the uniforms, going back to that time period. Wearing the period gloves, they were hard to catch and use. The shoes were different. It was crazy, but a lot of fun."
The movie has created opportunities Balcom never thought he'd have, but he's already opened plenty of doors for himself.
He was selected by the Cubs in the 33rd round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft and made it as far as Class A Peoria in 2005. He quit the game for a bit, getting a job as a stockbroker, and then played independent ball in 2007, hitting .304 with 34 stolen bases for the South Georgia Peanuts of the South Coast League. Then, he retired from professional baseball for good and began a new pursuit: teaching the sport to kids.
He does it at Hitter's Box in Duluth, Ga., a 6,000-square-foot facility dedicated to baseball development that includes state-of-the-art equipment -- including the ProBatter simulator, which is a virtual reality-type "flight simulator" machine used by Major League teams to train. Balcom is the owner of the facility and a hands-on teacher, working with kids of all ages to get better at the game that keeps giving him so much.
"Working with students is my passion," Balcom says. "So this movie is perfect for that, too. It's a great history, and I'm really excited for my students who now have the opportunity to see this film and know that I'm in it, but to also know who Jackie is. I want them to learn who he is, how you can persevere.
"See the example. Learn from what he went through. Learn who he was and what he means to society."