What started out as a whim has turned into a dream come true for Jamie Ruehling. Ruehling, the assistant principal and athletic director at Grundy County High School, can currently be seen on the silver screen playing Brooklyn Dodgers third baseman John “Spider” Jorgensen in “42,” the biography of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, became the first black player to cross the color line in Major League Baseball. Ruehling credits his big-screen debut to his mother, Vivian Ruehling.
One Sunday after church about a year and a half ago, Ruehling’s mother told him about a story she had read about a casting call for a movie being made about Jackie Robinson’s life. The announcement stated the filmmakers were looking for extras with baseball experience, and Ruehling certainly fit the bill. The Grundy County native had played second base for the high school where he now works as an administrator and was moved over to third by his coach at Tennessee Tech.
Figuring he had nothing to lose, Ruehling sent an email to the address in the article and soon received details about an open casting call in Atlanta. After discussing the opportunity with his wife, Amanda, Ruehling decided to give it a shot. There were more than 300 other hopefuls at the casting call, Ruehling recalled, all vying for the roughly 50 roles available. “They would pick 25 white guys to make up the teams that play the Dodgers in the movie and about 11 or 12 white pitchers,” he said. “And they were looking for 12 black guys to play in the Negro League scenes.” By the end of the casting call and subsequent two-day tryout process, the field of candidates to take the roles of the white players were whittled down to 36. At that point, Ruehling said, “I knew I had a chance.” But there was still some waiting to do.
“Allan Graf (the film’s stunt coordinator) told us he had good news and bad news,” Ruehling said. “The good news was he said we were all very good and we all had skills. The bad news was he wouldn’t be able to tell us today if we got the part. He had to talk to the director and said he would call us on Monday.” Although his family members knew what he was doing, Ruehling hadn’t told many other people that he was auditioning for the film. “It was strange,” he said. “I was almost afraid I would jinx myself if I told people about it.”
But once it became clear that he might be chosen for a part, which would require him to be away from work for eight to 10 weeks, he called Grundy County Director of Schools Jody Hargis. “He told me to go for it,” Ruehling said, adding he had enough days off accumulated to cover the time off the job would require. The assistant principal learned he had been cast in the film when Graf called one Monday morning as Ruehling and his wife were driving to the fitness center in Manchester, right around the same time Ruehling had resigned himself to the likelihood that he hadn’t been chosen.
“He said, ‘Congratulations, you made the team,’” Ruehling said. “And then there was the double whammy. He said, ‘The director wants you to come back and read for the part of the Dodgers’ third baseman.” The film, directed by Brian Helgeland who also wrote the screenplay, has a long history in the film industry, and won an Academy Award for best- adapted screenplay in 1998 for “L.A. Confidential.” “I drove back to Atlanta on Tuesday, Ruehling said. As he stood in front of a green screen, the director, stunt coordinator and other members of the crew sat at a time a few feet away evaluating his performance. “My hands were shaking so bad I put my hands in my pockets so they couldn’t see them shaking,” he said.
Ruehling headed home after the audition, calling his wife from the parking lot to tell her that he didn’t think the line reading had gone well. Forty-nine miles outside of Atlanta, his cell phone rang. Graf was on the other hand of the call, congratulating him on being cast as Spider Jorgensen, number 21 on the Dodgers roster. Coincidentally, 21 was also Ruehling’s number when he played for Tennessee Tech. With his wife’s blessing, Ruehling accepted the job and left to shoot the movie, a process that began with a two-week training camp with the entire cast in Atlanta. Once the cameras started rolling, the production moved to several locations throughout the Southeast, including Atlanta, Macon, Ga., Birmingham, Ala. and Chattanooga. “I’d come home on the weekends and when we were shooting in Chattanooga, I’d come home just about every night,” Ruehling said, adding that his wife did a great job on her own with the couple’s three children, Jaden, 10, Jailie, 8 and Jeter, 3. What started out as one line in the script soon became a larger speaking role.
“As we went through the process, the director would pull me out and give more lines,” Ruehling said. However, most of that additional screen time ended up on the cutting room floor. “When the movie came out and I went to see it, a lot of those lines had been edited out,” he said. “It was a little disappointing, but I was still fortunate to be a part of it.” And, he added with a smile, there’s always the possibility of a director’s cut at some point in future.
In addition to learning how movies are made, his affiliation “42” also provided Ruehling with opportunities to meet movie and sports stars like Harrison Ford and Hank Aaron and walk the carpet at the movie’s premiere in Hollywood. Although the real Spider Jorgensen died in 2003, Ruehling did get to speak to his Jorgensen’s daughter. “That was just amazing,” he said. “I would have given anything to have spoken with him.” The movie also got the seal of approval from Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, which meant a lot to Ruehling.
“I got to meet her when we were filming in Macon and again at the premiere,” he said. “What really sold her on this movie was that it brought out the love story between Jackie and Rachel and the hardships they went through together. She lived that too.” Ruehling said he went into this experience, not knowing what to expect in terms of how the movie would do at the box office. “42” took the top spot at the box office when it opened, raking in $27.5 million that first weekend alone. “I was hoping it would do really well and when it came out as the number-one movie that weekend, I was really proud of that,” he said.
Ruehling said the response he’s received both from his students and the community as a whole since the film was released has been “a humbling and flattering experience.” Some students have taken to teasing him, calling him “movie star” and “Hollywood,” while others are asking for autographs. Ruehling said he has always enjoyed acting, but had never pursued it professionally, taking roles instead in “church dramas.” “I always wanted to be an actor and baseball player,” he said. “It was two dreams coming true at once. God really blessed, no doubt about it.” As much as he enjoyed being a part of “42” and would love to take another swing at being a part of the movie business, Ruehling isn’t packing up his family and heading to California.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “…But Hollywood is not coming to call. I’ve still got responsibilities here and responsibilities to my family… It was definitely a new experience and it was a really awesome experience.”