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Volume 23 No. 28
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The sum of 42, Jackie Robinson

Filmmaker Ken Burns tackles the complexity of a baseball pioneer

“It was time to show the real, much more dimensional person. … It was good to sort of liberate ourselves and liberate him.” — KEN BURNS
Photo: COURTESY OF JUSTIN ALTMAN

“Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity.”

So reads the plaque for Jackie Robinson at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, amended to include his role in breaking baseball’s color barrier. Most people know the basics of Robinson’s story as a pioneer, punctuated by his restraint in the face of constant racial provocation by opponents, fans and others in the game.

The broader arc of Robinson’s life, and his fierce push for civil rights beyond baseball, are largely forgotten or unknown. A major corrective arrives this month, when a two-part, four-hour biography debuts on PBS.

It’s the result of years of prodding by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who prevailed upon an influential friend — documentary filmmaker Ken Burns — to tell the authentic, full story of her late husband’s life. Burns and Rachel Robinson struck up a friendship when he made his “Baseball” miniseries in 1994.

Burns tells Jackie Robinson’s story using a combination of still photos, archival footage and interviews with a wide range of sources: Rachel, of course, as well as the Obamas, historian Gerald Early, former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and ESPN writer Howard Bryant.

When Rachel Robinson says, “He felt the weight of black people on his shoulders,” it carries the weight of someone who witnessed and experienced the pressure of not just standing up to racists, but also living up to soaring expectations among African-Americans.

Many fans know Robinson’s number — 42 — thanks to a move by Major League Baseball in 2004 devoting a day to him. Each April 15, all players wear 42 to commemorate Robinson’s integration of the sport.

A young Jackie Robinson, and later in life (below). He died in 1972 at 53.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
But how many fans recall, or ever knew, that Robinson was a Republican? That he campaigned for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy? Or that he was viewed as an Uncle Tom and a sellout in retirement for his opposition to Malcolm X and other more militant protesters? That he railed against African-Americans offering constant loyalty to Democratic politicians instead of demanding both parties make legitimate pledges to win the support of black voters?

Robinson died at 53 in 1972, ravaged by diabetes and heart problems. His death

Photo: COURTESY OF RACHEL ROBINSON
occurred less than two weeks after his final public appearance, when he threw out the first pitch at the World Series in Cincinnati and, in brief remarks to the crowd, said he hoped to live to see a black manager in the major leagues.

Burns delves into the split between Robinson and his African-American teammate Roy Campanella, who, in Rachel’s words, “felt Jack protested too much,” a difference of opinion that eventually ruptured their friendship. Robinson faltered in his role as an African-American leader when he was successfully used as a pawn in congressional hearings to discredit entertainer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, a painful episode included in Burns’ documentary.

Elsewhere, Burns mines nuggets likely to surprise many viewers, such as the revelation (or, for some, reminder) that Jackie and Rachel Robinson and their children lived with the family of singer Carly Simon in Connecticut. Simon was a little girl at the time. Now, at age 70, she tells Burns, “[Jackie] was a king.” Simon’s mother, who heard about the Robinsons struggling to find a home in Connecticut, befriended Rachel Robinson and had the Robinsons live with them while they looked for a house nearby.

Recent interviews with Willie Mays, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe — all of them in their mid-80s or older — offer firsthand recollections of what Robinson was like as a player and as a man. Though he won grudging acceptance during his first couple of seasons as a Brooklyn Dodger, Robinson, with approval from team executive Branch Rickey, asserted himself with umpires and opponents as his career went on, prompting a harsh backlash from them.

“Jackie Robinson,” a two-part, four-hour film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is scheduled to make its debut April 11-12 on PBS.
“The minute he decided to defend himself, they would call him uppity,” Rachel Robinson says in the documentary.

The Robinson film is the latest production by Burns in his long-running partnership with PBS. He spoke to SportsBusiness Journal correspondent Erik Spanberg about the making of “Jackie Robinson” and several projects he has in the works. Burns, 62, made one thing clear: He’s not retiring any time soon.

Burns on Rachel Robinson, shown in an undated photo with her husband, and below, this year at age 93: “She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s tough. I love her.”
Photo: COURTESY OF RACHEL ROBINSON

As the father of two grown kids plus an 11-year-old and a 5-year-old, and a grandfather of two, he says his family inspires him: “I think all of that keeps you young.”

You explored the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in your “Baseball” series. What convinced you to take on a stand-alone documentary?

Burns: Rachel Robinson. She was very persuasive. I knew he deserved stand-alone treatment and what we felt also [is that] in the intervening years [since “Baseball” first aired in 1994] he’s been kind of encrusted with the barnacles of mythology and sentimentality.

Photo by: RAHOUL GHOSE / PBS

It was time to show the real, much more dimensional person, who’s much more interesting. It doesn’t in any way take away from his heroism and his extraordinary importance, not just in baseball but in American history. And it was good to sort of liberate ourselves and liberate him from the ball and chains of that kind of artificial perfection. It was kind of getting treacly.

And we got to tell the complex love story [between Jackie and Rachel], the multigenerational story of an African-American family with all of its glories and problems and talk about race in America. There’s something about this being too achingly familiar [in terms of racial struggles] and, at the same time, I got to interview the president of the United States and the first lady, who feel like they’re [similar]. There was Rachel and Jackie, he couldn’t have done it without her, and there’s the president and first lady, he couldn’t have done it without her. They had a lot of stuff heaped on them only because of the color of their skin, and it was nice to go home and know that someone has your back.

In 2005, you released a film called “Unforgivable Blackness” about African-American boxer Jack Johnson. Which other athletes interest you as potential subjects?

Burns: I would certainly say, without a doubt, Muhammad Ali would be the one person I am most interested in getting to know deeper, do a deep dive on as we’ve been fortunate to do with Jackie.

And the “we,” by the way — this is a film directed by myself, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, so all three of us are responsible. I’m not saying it out of some pompous, royal “we,” but this is a collaborative effort between Sarah Burns and David McMahon and me.

Sarah is your daughter and David is your son-in-law and they have worked with you on other projects in the past. How do those collaborations reflect your thoughts about long-term succession within your company?

Burns: I’m interested in the individual films, but I’m also interested in helping folks who work with me, not just my daughter and my son-in-law, but others, to help them do what they’re going to do. So it’s not so much the longevity of the company as it is allowing the process to continue. And we’ve got several films planned together in the future.

In this movie you have Jamie Foxx doing the voice-overs as Jackie and your talking heads include President Obama and the first lady. You have music performed and written by Wynton Marsalis. How did those collaborations come about?

Burns: I have always used first-person voices that complement the third-person narrator in all of my films. The script was written by Sarah and Dave. And, Keith David read those words [as the narrator]. And we all felt collectively that we needed a voice for Jackie and I couldn’t think of anybody better than Jamie, who knocked it out of the park. I was asking him to be kind of a disembodied voice from the past that would wake up Jackie, those moments where only he could say the words. That was really satisfying.

I just asked the president if he would do [an interview on-camera about Jackie] and he said yes.

All MLBers wear Robinson’s number each April 15.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
And I’ve worked with Wynton for more than 20 years on various things: “Jazz,” the soundtrack to “Prohibition” and “The War” and other things we’ve worked on. He’s a dear friend, a brother, really. One of the great people on earth.

In “Jackie Robinson,” one of the most captivating aspects is seeing the grace and beauty of him as a young athlete and seeing the handsome couple he and Rachel were. What parallels do you see between the Robinsons and the Obamas?

Burns: I think we tend to, even with the best of intentions, sort of assume that all African-Americans are the same. Everybody’s narrative — yours, mine, theirs — are all completely different.

But it was important for us to do this multigenerational portrait. It was important to speak to the president and the first lady. You have these moments where you feel these four people, two couples hurtling through space and time, united in film by the similarities of their struggles. That was really important for us to grasp.

I think the president and, particularly, the first lady also helped us understand that. So we’re very pleased they were involved.

I love the sequence in one of your interviews with the Obamas when Michelle Obama makes the point that Jackie never could have achieved what he did without Rachel and the president starts chuckling …

Burns: It’s a wonderful moment because we all know what’s going on there. It’s an interchange that every couple on earth has had. And we have an opportunity to remind people that this may be the most powerful couple on earth, but they’re also human beings, too, and we can see their humanness.

They are a couple who are remarkably transparent. Most people in the White House get completely opaque and you don’t know who they really are, but [with the Obamas] what you see is what you get.

Given the current political climate and the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina last summer, how much of a trailblazer do you think Jackie was for lashing out when the Confederate flag was flown at Ebbets Field during a birthday tribute to Pee Wee Reese? And was Jackie proved right in his assessment that black voters should have pushed for both parties to make an effort to woo them rather than just following the Democrats so loyally?

Burns: William Faulkner said history is not “was” but “is.” I think the story on Jackie really proves it.

We were stunned when we stumbled across the Confederate flag [issue then] because that’s what’s going on [now]. And stop-and-frisk, driving while black, integrating swimming pools, [those things were issues for Jackie] ... .

You have to understand what a pioneer [Jackie] is. Martin Luther King was a junior at Morehouse College when he came up [to play for the Dodgers]. [President] Truman hadn’t integrated the military, there hadn’t been Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to give up her seat.

Robinson (with white hair) on a march in an undated photo.
Photo: COURTESY OF DAVID S. JOHNSON / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In each of your films, there often seems to be a surprise standout interviewee. In “The Civil War,” it was Shelby Foote. In “Baseball,” it was Buck O’Neil. For my money, Rachel Robinson is the person you can’t take your eyes off in this film. What do you think?

Burns: You bet. No question. Hands down, she is the star of the show. There’s a wonderful comment by Michelle and the president that [Jackie] was a smart guy to pick her. [Rachel is] 93 years old, she has all her marbles, she’s a remarkable human being, she’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s tough. I love her. I’ve had the great privilege of knowing her for almost a quarter of a century. I have no words to repay her, and I’m happy that she’s happy with the film.

One of the best descriptions of institutional racism that I’ve ever heard is in your film. John Thorn, the baseball historian, describes the pact between Commissioner Landis and the owners to keep the game segregated like this: “It just proceeded of its own noxious force.”

Burns: How great is that? John was a star of the original “Baseball” series, and he’s a star here. He’s a dear friend and he’s a sharp man and he really understands what this whole equation is about.

I thought that phrase “noxious force” is just the epitome [of what happened]. We call this a “gentlemen’s agreement.” I mean, give me a break, these are not gentlemen. These are racist people who are perpetuating anti-American ideals.

The movie includes an obvious detail that shocked me: Jackie’s original Hall of Fame plaque didn’t mention his role breaking the color barrier. Why?

Burns: [It helps] if you can understand why Jackie was a Republican — lift yourself up by your bootstraps [the original plaque reflected Robinson’s wishes that it refer to his on-field achievements]. He was in the Hall of Fame because he played baseball really well. I’m glad that that’s now been amended, but there’s something about it. It doesn’t say about Ty Cobb [on his plaque] that he’s a racist pig or that Babe Ruth hit the bottle too much. It’s the facts of their baseball career. But I think we now know that Jackie Robinson is without a doubt the most important person in the history of baseball — he may not be the best baseball player but he’s the most important person in the history of baseball and that’s hugely important to us. It was when we released [“Baseball”] back in 1994 and it’s even more important now that we’ve the great privilege of working with Rachel to make this two-part, four-hour, in-depth film on one of the most important people not just in baseball, but also in the history of the United States.

Your current long-form projects include films on Vietnam and country music. How are those progressing?

Burns: “Vietnam” is now done with editing. We’re now mixing, and that will take another eight or nine months and then we’ll spend a year promoting it. We just opened the editing room a month ago on “Country Music.”

“Vietnam” is 10 parts and 18 hours, “Country Music” is seven parts and 14 hours. I’m doing a two-part biography of Ernest Hemingway, which we’ve started, and I’m doing a biography of the Mayo Clinic. I’ve got several other projects that are about to start and some that I’m serving as executive producer.

If any other filmmaker tells you they’re working on 10 films, they’re lying. But I actually am.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.