Ken Burns Explain Why the Real Jackie Robinson Was the Most Important Baseball Player Ever

Ken Burns agrees that we can't remember Jackie Robinson enough. He just wants us to remember the real Jackie Robinson.

So he's taken the Robinson segment of his Emmy-winning 1994 Baseball series and expanded it into a four-hour documentary on the life of the man who 69 years ago this month integrated Major League Baseball.


Jackie Robinson airs Monday and Tuesday, 9-11 p.m. ET, on PBS.

Burns says it's the least he can do.

"Jackie Robinson was the most important player in the history of Major League Baseball," says Burns. "Maybe not the best, but the most important."

Baseball itself honors Robinson in a number of ways. With the retirement of Yankees' reliever Mariano Rivera, no player on any team will again wear 42, the number Robinson wore for nine seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The only danger, says Burns, is that in enshrining an iconic figure, we could forget who Robinson really was, and how he really lived his life on and off the field.

Jackie Robinson focuses on how involved and active a life he led, before, during and after his baseball career.

Robinson grew up in the Jim Crow West, Pasadena, Calif., and he spent his life fighting to erase the corrosive effect of racial discrimination.

In the process he didn't always make friends and he didn't always serve his own health well. He was 53 when he died.

"In the mythic view," says Burns, "Jackie Robinson was able to integrate baseball because he agreed not to fight back - to ignore the racist taunts and behavior.

"For his first three years - one with the Triple-A Montreal farm team and two with the Dodgers - he did that. It was a remarkable achievement.

"But that wasn't the real Jackie. Once he completed that agreement with [Dodgers president] Branch Rickey, you saw a very different person. He argued with umpires, he spoke out to his teammates, he told the press what he was really thinking."


The unchained Jackie emerged in the 1949 season, Burns notes, "and 1949 was the best year of his career. He had his best statistics and he won the National League Most Valuable Player award."

Jackie Robinson features footage of Robinson arguing with umpires, who he suspected sometimes tended not to let close calls go his way. It notes that his outspokenness at times led to negative press from writers who had admired the more reserved Robinson of his first two seasons - the one who, by implication, knew his place.

The documentary also notes some of the other realities of baseball's early integration, like the fact that Robinson often couldn't stay with his team at Southern hotels or eat in the same restaurants.

Inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, Robinson was often isolated. While not all his teammates openly shunned him, like outfielder Dixie Walker, Burns says he found no evidence to support the famous feel-good story about teammate Pee Wee Reese publicly embracing him on the field after a torrent of racist taunts in Cincinnati.

"It's a great story," says Burns. "There's a statue in New York commemorating it, and we know Pee Wee supported Jackie. We just couldn't find any evidence that specific incident really happened.

"Robinson presented a dilemma to his teammates. Carl Erskine remembers going back home to Indiana in the off-season and having people ask,'Do you take showers with him?' "

Robinson could also create dilemmas for those who admired him, which happened when he began working with New York's Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

The Republican party had a far more influential moderate and liberal wing then, Burns notes, but when Robinson also embraced the candidacy of Richard Nixon, he heard accusations of selling out.

He eventually broke with Nixon, but as the 1960s Civil Rights movement became more aggressive, Robinson was seen by some as a vestige of an earlier day.

All this "wore on him," Burns says, "but to his credit, he never stopped speaking out. From the time he signed with the Dodgers he was a public figure. He knew that and he accepted it. He never stopped fighting."


Accepting a ceremonial honor at a baseball park one night after his retirement, he remarked that the honor would mean more if he could look out over the field and see black faces in coaching and management positions.

In a way, Burns suggests, history's challenge with Robinson is the same one it faces with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Because of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, he often is portrayed as a sort of abstract feel-good moral idealist, when in reality he spent much of his life in the trenches and some of it in jail.

Burns further suggests that President Barack Obama has in some ways been "our version of Jackie Robinson" - someone who, for all his skills and qualifications, still has to convince a lot of people that he belongs in the position to which he ascended.

Nor is that the only link Burns sees. "Barack Obama would never have become President without Jackie Robinson," he says. "Jackie opened that door."

So yes, Burns thinks the country is moving in the right direction. Just taking a long time to get there.

"You see progress," he says. "From 1619, when the first slaves were brought here, to 1863, when slavery was abolished. Then to 1965 with the Civil Rights Act. But progress engenders resistance. We see that today."


Jackie Robinson saw it, too, and Burns argues that the more we humanize him, the better we can appreciate how hard and well he fought it, on and off the baseball diamond.