This was the Kansas City premiere of the movie "42," the story of how Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, portrayed by Ford, broke baseball's color line in 1947. The locale was a natural fit because Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in 1945, the last step before joining the Dodgers' organization.
Mr. Ford, how much did you know about the Jackie Robinson-Branch Rickey story?
"Not much," Ford admitted. "I knew about Jackie Robinson, but I really didn't know about Branch Rickey until I did the research. I was delighted to find a larger-than-life character who was really interesting to me."
Ford was accompanied by co-stars Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, and Andre Holland, who plays sports writer Wendell Smith. They were preceded down the red carpet by a flood of baseball personalities who were there to be seen and to see the movie.
"I want to see the whole story and I know this is going to be a great education for me, and I think it's going to be a great education for the players that play today and for our country," said Kansas City Hall of Famer George Brett.
Hall of Famer Lou Brock, an African-American star who was signed by KC icon Buck O'Neil, recalled meeting Robinson at the 1968 World Series.
"There was a rain delay when I was in the on-deck circle with the bases loaded, and I looked back and saw Jackie Robinson sitting with [presidential candidate] Hubert Humphrey," Brock recalled. "I walked back and said, 'Which one of you guys want to pinch-hit for me?' They both chuckled. And when the game resumed, I hit a triple. And after the game, they came into the clubhouse and I got to meet him."
Former Royals star Frank White grew up in Kansas City about three blocks from where legendary Satchel Paige once lived. Robinson was also a legend in his house.
"He meant the world to us," White said. "He was all we talked about and all my parents talked about. And when we played the game in the neighborhood, somebody would always be Jackie Robinson and somebody would be Hank Aaron and somebody would be Willie Mays. That's how we grew up playing."
By becoming the African-American trailblazer of the Major Leagues, Robinson also provided a huge boost to the civil rights movement in the United States and around the world. That's part of what movie-goers experience in "42."
"I think they need to look at it as history, not just a baseball movie," White said.
The event at the AMC BarryWoods 24 theater in Kansas City benefited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Sports Commission. Ford and the other cast members autographed bats and movie posters that raised thousands of dollars at an auction before the showing.
"This ranks up there with those historical milestones for the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum, right there with our grand opening in 1997 and the reunion of those Negro League players and, of course, last year's All-Star Game," said museum president Bob Kendrick.
Ford hobnobbed with several current Royals players, including Eric Hosmer and Jarrod Dyson, who weren't even born when he was making "Star Wars" and his early "Indiana Jones" films.
On display at the theatre, courtesy of the Royals Hall of Fame, was a Kansas City Royals jersey of the type Robinson wore in 1945. What? That can't be true. But wait, it's tricky trivia time.
That year, Robinson, after playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, went to play in the California Winter League for a team managed by Chet Brewer, a former Monarch. Brewer wanted to label his California team the Monarchs but couldn't use the name, so he called his team the "Kansas City Royals" even though they played in the Los Angeles area. So you can bet somebody that Robinson played for the Kansas City Royals -- and win.
When the movie got rolling, after a sound system glitch, the crowd saw a bushy-browed, gruff, cigar-smoking Rickey (Ford) and an intense Robinson convincingly portrayed by Boseman. The 1945-47 era was captured brilliantly with realistic sets that brought back baseball's golden era, notably Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
The movie, named for Robinson's uniform number, focuses on his courageous stand against prejudice. In one poignant scene, Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white teammate, drapes his arm around Robinson in a show of support.
"Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear number 42 and they can't tell us apart," Reese tells him.
Now it's the only uniform number retired throughout Major League Baseball, and it will be worn by every player on every team again this year on Jackie Robinson Day, which is Monday.
After the movie, sports writer Joe Posnanski chaired a panel discussion with Brock, Kendrick and Jackie's son, David Robinson.
"This film was historically accurate, inspiring and I hope you were all empowered," David Robinson said.
Baseball action is often difficult for filmmakers to capture, but Kendrick assessed "42" as very realistic. Brock thought the actors looked naturally athletic.
The audience sat in rapt attention throughout the showing, even though this was a movie where you knew, in the end, who was going to win.