April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, which honors the legendary pioneer in an impactful way. Every player, manager, coach and umpire wears “42” – Robinson’s jersey number with the Brooklyn Dodgers – creating a powerful sense of unity and reverence.
Compelling photographs that feature players wearing the number appear at the end of “Jackie Robinson,” the new two-part documentary that concludes Tuesday night on PBS. On Friday, when all 30 MLB teams are in action, there will be a scattering of African-Americans among taking the field. Roughly 8 percent of players are black.
But noted filmmaker Ken Burns, director of “Jackie Robinson” and the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “Baseball,” says Robinson’s legacy of breaking the color line in 1947 isn’t diminished by the lack of diversity today.
“I don’t look at it as a negative, Burns said in a recent phone interview. “Major League Baseball has recognized the low numbers and is looking to have more. There are more African-American players than a few years ago and baseball wants more in the stands. Let’s remember when Jackie came up, that was the only sport there was – college football and baseball.
“Now African-Americans dominate football and more than dominate the NBA. That’s good news because it’s more opportunities for expression. But Jackie wasn’t just about African-Americans; Latino players have Jackie to thank, too.”
All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Robinson, who helped move our nation – kicking and screaming for the most part – toward a more-inclusive society. He was a one-man civil rights movement, years before sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts and protests became fixtures in the news cycle.
The fact that Robinson broke ground in baseball, opposed to, say, education or public accommodations, doesn’t make his achievement less significant.
“He’s the most important person in American sports and one of the top 10-15 most important people in all of American history,” Burns said. “The first real progress in the modern world in the 20th century was African-Americans playing baseball. It wasn’t Joe Louis or even Jack Johnson. It was Jackie Robinson walking through that door. Baseball has accompanied almost every decade of our national narrative and it’s the sport that everyone paid attention to.”
Burns paid attention to Robinson throughout “Baseball,” a 1994 documentary that attracted 41.3 million viewers to become the most watched miniseries in public television history. Broken into nine “innings,” the film devoted sections to Robinson in all but one episode.
Afterward, Burns was delighted to comply when Rachel Robinson asked him to produce a film solely on her late husband.
Only three years have passed since Hollywood released “42,” a sweet and simplistic movie that mostly avoided the hard edges to Robinson’s life and times. The focus was on Robinson’s entry into the majors and his standout debut season, which included Rookie of the Year honors and a pennant for the Dodgers.
Burns covers that familiar ground primarily in Part 1; Part 2 largely is devoted to Robinson’s post-baseball career as an executive and civil rights activist. “42” stayed away from Robinson’s controversial while including widely-believed fables that Burns was anxious to debunk.
“That movie repeated some of the mythology surrounding Robinson, like (teammate) Pee Wee Reese putting an around him and the centrality of (Dodgers GM) Branch Rickey,” Burns said. “I was more than happy to have a longer, more complex story. That film was very good, but our film is better because it has more factual stuff.”
More factual stuff and actual voices, such as President Obama, Tom Brokaw, Harry Belafonte and – most notably – Rachel Robinson, the still-beautiful widow who steals the show. “She’s more than amazing,” Burns said. “She’s one of the most formidable human beings I’ve ever met. She’s 93, looks 70 and has all her marbles and some of mine.”
No one was closer and no one else endured virtually each step of Robinson’s experience. Rachel Robinson’s presence adds valuable insight and perspective, while helping us see a true love story inside a trailblazing journey.
Like Burns’ previous films, “Jackie Robinson” is history as entertainment. Baseball plays a strong supporting role, but society gets top billing. And since it’s a story of American history, no one should be surprised that race is a central character.
“I think the sub-theme of American history is race,” Burns told “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert last Friday. “We were founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but, whoops – the guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see in his lifetime to free any one of them. He didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy.
And so it set us on a journey where we are constantly having to struggle not with race, but racism.”
Robinson scored a major victory in the struggle, but MLB’s demonstrations on April 15 don’t come close to explaining his significance. So do your best to watch Burns’ latest film, a remarkable piece of work.
You won’t find a better telling of Robinson’s saga, a story that transcends sports and teaches lessons to this day.