In a lot of ways, Jasha Balcom‘s story sounds all too familiar among the throngs on young ballplayers hoping to graduate from college to the minor leagues to The Show. However, Balcom’s story has ended up with him participating in an integral chapter in the history of Major League Baseball.
Since Balcom was 6 or 7 years old, he knew he wanted to play professional baseball. Unlike most kids who have that dream, Balcom actually made it that far. Balcom transferred to the University of Georgia during college and joined the lauded Bulldogs baseball squad. He was then drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 33rd round, first being sent to the team’s rookie league affiliate in Boise, Idaho, and eventually to Low-A Peoria, Ill.
After switching organizations to the Cardinals, and dealing with some unspecified family issues, Balcom’s career stalled. Save for some time in independent ball, he was done playing the sport competitively. After getting married and having a family, he thought perhaps it was the prudent choice not to try to pursue the far-off dream.
But Balcom’s baseball story did not end there.
Balcom served as the stunt double to actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie Robinson, in the upcoming biopic 42, which opens in theaters Friday. In a phone interview on Monday, Balcom noted some of the challenging yet fulfilling parts of his role.
“I had no experience in stunt work before this movie,” Balcom said. “The director saw some photos of me that a former teammate of mine in the Cubs organization had given him.”
After professional baseball, Balcom eventually opened his own baseball instruction academy, and now spends most of his afternoons working with students in his 60,000 square foot space, known as Hitter’s Box Baseball. Hitter’s Box is located Duluth, Ga., just north of Atlanta, and it actually helped Balcom prepare for the role of imitating Robinson.
“I keep myself in pretty decent shape, but I had to learn to hit right-handed,” Balcom said. To do that, he used the Pro Batter Simulator, a batting cage designed with video of a pitcher that is capable of simulating multiple pitch types in any location. “I hadn’t seen pitches right-handed, but it actually didn’t take me very long to learn to hit from that side.”
Other parts of fulfilling the role of Robinson came easier.
“Once I put on that uniform, getting dirty, diving and having to slide hard — it was how Jackie played the game,” Balcom said. “To feel in that moment, the emotion, the intensity, I knew I had to match Chadwick.”
Beyond getting in the moment and portraying some of the action shots as Robinson, Balcom clearly has a great respect for the man and the role. He shared a story of how his parents’ college class was the first to integrate, and how his dad constantly talked about the greatness of Robinson.
“It’s very personal, very humbling,” Balcom said. “The story needed to be told, not just reading about [Robinson's] legacy. You can’t understand the man unless you can connect with the moment, and history books can’t teach it the same way.”
The movie also stars Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Robinson. It figures to introduce the story to a new generation who may not be as familiar with the civil rights figure. Balcom, meanwhile, is glad that his academy students get to actually see the story of Robinson portrayed in a way that is easier to connect to, so that hopefully they have a new appreciation of the game and the man.
While Balcom’s major league ambitions may not have been realized, ultimately his baseball story may have far more importance than he might have had simply as a player.
Photo via Jasha Balcom