The Jackie Robinson Story: Ken Burns Documentary Captures the Man and the Movement

The Jackie Robinson Story: Ken Burns Documentary Captures the Man and the Movement

The Ken Burns documentary airing on PBS this week demonstrates how the fight to break baseball’s racial barrier went beyond Robinson’s personal heroism and rested on a broad political movement.

April 11, 2016

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Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the two-part Ken Burns documentary on Jackie Robinson that airs on PBS Monday and Tuesday will have you rooting for the Major League’s first African American player to overcome the racist obstacles put in his way. It is an iconic tale of courage and determination that resonates today.

At a time when racial tensions are flaring in police departments, on college campuses, and on the presidential campaign trail, Robinson’s story serves as a reminder of the nation’s best impulses—and its worst. It is difficult today to summon the excitement that greeted Robinson's achievement of breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Americans readjusted to life after returning from World War II, Robinson’s success on the baseball diamond was a symbol of the promise of a racially integrated society.  He did more than change the way baseball is played and who plays it. His actions on and off the diamond helped pave the way for America to confront its racial hypocrisy.

In Burns’s documentary, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, recounts the ordeal the couple faced during their journey, two weeks after their marriage, to his first spring training in Daytona, Florida. After flying from Los Angeles to New Orleans, they were bumped from their connecting flight and were stranded in the New Orleans airport, where none of the restaurants would serve them. Jackie protested this obvious racist act to the airline attendant behind the counter, to no avail. They took a later flight to Pensacola, Florida, where they were to get on another connecting flight to Jacksonville. Once on board, they were ordered off the plane and replaced with two white passengers. Furious, they boarded a bus for Jacksonville. On the bus, the driver told them to move to the back of the bus, which (unlike the seats up-front) did not recline. After a long, bumpy ride they arrived in Jacksonville and switched to a bus to Daytona Beach.

For the next 11 years—until Robinson retired from baseball in 1956—the couple endured the humiliations and bigotry, and celebrated the triumphs and accolades, of being civil rights pioneers. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism—including verbal and physical abuse on the field and in hotels, restaurants, trains, and elsewhere—drew public attention to the issue, stirred the consciences of many white Americans, and gave black Americans a tremendous boost of pride and self-confidence.

Martin Luther King Jr. once told Dodgers star Don Newcombe, who along with Robinson and baseball icon Roy Campanella moved from the Negro League to the Major League, “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy did to make it possible to do my job.” 

Robinson, who spent his entire Major League career (1947 to 1956) with the Dodgers, was voted Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, when he won the National League batting title with a .342 batting average. An outstanding base runner and base stealer, with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

 

Over the years, most of the celebrations of Robinson’s achievements—in movies, museum exhibits, and news articles—have been cast in a familiar ideological mold. They focus primarily on Robinson’s accomplishments as an individual pioneer, as one man who triumphed over adversity—a lone trailblazer who broke baseball’s color line on his athletic merits, with a helping hand from Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, the shrewd strategist who recruited Robinson and orchestrated his transition from the Negro Leagues to the all-white Major Leagues.

AP Photo, File

In this March 5, 1964 file photo, former baseball star Jackie Robinson, center, appears with demonstrators in a civil rights march on the capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky.

This version of the story has at times served conservative interests. In 1996, as the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of baseball’s integration, the right-wing National Review pointed to Robinson’s success as an argument against affirmative action. “Government had almost nothing to do with this triumph of the competitive market,” wrote Steve Sailer. “Baseball owners finally realized that the more they cared about the color of people’s money, the less they could afford to care about their color of their skin.”

But the true story of baseball’s integration is not primarily about the triumph of rugged individualism or enlightened capitalism. Rather, it was a political victory brought about by social protest, part and parcel of the nation’s broader struggle for civil rights and social justice.

In interviews about the film, Burns describes racism and slavery as America’s “original sin.” He gives full credit to Robinson’s talent and courage, but he also casts his achievement as part of the ongoing battle to dismantle America’s own apartheid system. That story has been told in two outstanding books—Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment (1983) and Chris Lamb's Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (2012). Burns understands that history, which is filled with fascinating characters and dramatic conflicts.

As Tygiel’s and Lamb’s books recount, Rickey's plan came after more than a decade of effort by black and left-wing journalists and activists to desegregate the national pastime. Beginning in the 1930s, the Negro press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. It was part of a broader movement to eliminate discrimination in housing, jobs, and other sectors of society. It included protests against segregation within the military, support for a federal anti-lynching law, marches to open up defense jobs to blacks during World War II, and boycotts against stores that refused to hire African Americans that exhorted “don't shop where you can't work.” The movement accelerated after the war, when returning black veterans expected that America would open up opportunities for African Americans.

AP Photo/File

This Aug. 22, 1948, file photo shows Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson, right, stealing home plate as Boston Braves' catcher Bill Salkeld is thrown off-balance on the throw to the plate during the fifth inning at Ebbets Field in New York. 

Starting in the 1930s, reporters for African American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People's Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), and Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, pressured baseball's establishment to hire black players. They published open letters to owners; polled white managers and players (some of whom were threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to blacks, but most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans); brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training centers, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers also joined the chorus for baseball integration.

Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They gathered more than one million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier erected by team owners and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association held an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World's Fair. The following year, liberal unions sent a delegation to meet with Landis to demand that Major League Baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson, the prominent black actor, singer, and activist, addressed baseball's owners at their annual winter meeting in New York, urging them to integrate their teams. Under orders from Landis, they ignored Robeson and didn't ask him a single question.

In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a progressive member of the Boston City Council, threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit to play on Sundays unless the team considered hiring black players. Working with several black sportswriters, Muchnick persuaded the reluctant Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, to give three Negro League players—Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams—a tryout at Fenway Park in April of that year. The Sox had no intention of signing any of the players, nor did the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Chicago White Sox, which orchestrated similar bogus auditions. But the public pressure and media publicity helped raise awareness and furthered the cause.

Other politicians were allies in the crusade. Running for re-election to the New York City Council in 1945, Ben Davis—an African American former college football star, and a Communist—distributed a leaflet with the photos of two blacks, a dead soldier and a baseball player. “Good enough to die for his country,” it said, “but not good enough for organized baseball.” That year, the New York state legislature passed the Quinn-Ives Act, which banned discrimination in hiring, and soon formed a committee to investigate discriminatory hiring practices, including one that focused on baseball. In short order, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia established a Committee on Baseball to push the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers to sign black players. Left-wing Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who represented Harlem, called for an investigation of baseball's racist practices.

That protest movement set the stage for Robinson's entrance into the Major Leagues. In October of 1945, Rickey announced that Robinson had signed a contract with the Dodgers. He sent Robinson to the Dodgers' minor-league team in Montreal for the 1946 season, then brought him up to the Brooklyn team on opening day, April 15, 1947.

Robinson broke into baseball at a time when America was a deeply segregated nation. In 1946, at least six African Americans were lynched in the South. Restrictive covenants were still legal, barring blacks (and Jews) from buying homes in many neighborhoods—and not just in the South. Only a handful of blacks were enrolled in the nation's predominantly white colleges and universities. There were only two blacks in Congress. No big city had a black mayor.

The Robinson experiment succeeded—on the field and at the box office. Within a few years, the Dodgers had hired other black players—pitchers Don Newcombe and Joe Black, catcher Roy Campanella, infielder Jim Gilliam, and Cuban outfielder Sandy Amoros—who helped turn the 1950s Dodgers into one of the greatest teams in baseball history.

 

The grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, Robinson was 14 months old in 1920 when his mother moved her five children from Cairo, Georgia, to Pasadena, a wealthy, conservative suburb of Los Angeles. During Robinson’s youth, black residents, who represented a small proportion of the city’s population, were treated like second-class citizens. Blacks were allowed to swim in the municipal pool only on Tuesdays (the day the water was changed) and could use the YMCA only one day a week.

Robinson learned at an early age that athletic success did not guarantee social or political acceptance. When his older brother, Mack, returned from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with a silver medal in track, he got no hero’s welcome. The only job the college-educated Mack would find was as a street sweeper and ditch digger.

Although Pasadena was deeply segregated, Robinson lived among and formed friendships with whites while growing up there and while attending Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. He was UCLA's first four-sport athlete (football, basketball, track, and baseball), twice led the Pacific Coast League in scoring in basketball, won the NCAA broad jump championship, and was a football All-American. He may have been the greatest all-around athlete in American history.

AP Photo/William J. Smith

Jackie Robinson speaks before the House Un-American Activities committee, July 18, 1949. 

There have been four Hollywood films about Robinson. All of them suffer from what might be called movement myopia. We may prefer our heroes to be rugged individualists, but the myth embedded in Hollywood's version of the Robinson story doesn’t conform with reality.

In The Jackie Robinson Story, released in 1950, Robinson played himself and the fabulous Ruby Dee portrayed his wife Rachel. Produced at the height of the Cold War, five years before the Montgomery bus boycott, the film celebrated Robinson's feat as evidence that America was a land of opportunity where anyone could succeed if he had the talent and will. The movie opens with the narrator saying: “This is a story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, it's a story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.”

In 1990 TNT released a made-for-TV movie, The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, starring Andre Braugher, which focused on Robinson's battles with racism as a soldier during World War II. In 1944, while assigned to a training camp at Fort Hood in segregated Texas, Robinson, a second lieutenant, refused to move to the back of an army bus when the white driver ordered him to do so, even though buses had been officially desegregated on military bases. He was court martialed for his insubordination, tried, acquitted, transferred to another military base, and honorably discharged four months later. By depicting Robinson as a rebellious figure who chafed at the blatant racism he faced, the film foreshadows the traits he would have to initially suppress once he reached the majors.

HBO's The Soul of the Game, released in 1996, focused on the hopes and then the frustrations of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, the two greatest players in the Negro Leagues, whom Branch Rickey passed up to integrate the majors in favor of Robinson, played by Blair Underwood. Rickey had long wanted to hire black players, both for moral reasons and because he believed it would increase ticket sales among the growing number of African Americans moving to the big cities. He knew that if the experiment failed, the cause of baseball integration would be set back for many years. Rickey's scouts identified Robinson—who was playing for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs after leaving the army—as a potential barrier-breaker.

Rickey could have chosen other Negro League players with greater talent or more name recognition, but he wanted someone who could be, in today's terms, a role model. Robinson was young, articulate, and well educated. Rickey knew that Robinson had a hot temper and strong political views, but he calculated that Robinson could handle the emotional pressure while helping the Dodgers on the field. Robinson promised Rickey that, for at least his rookie year, he would not respond to the inevitable verbal barbs and even physical abuse he would face on a daily basis.

The 2013 film 42 echoes the familiar narrative. It portrays baseball's integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) battling baseball’s, and society’s, bigotry. Viewers of 42 saw no evidence of the movement that made Robinson's—and the Dodgers'—success possible. For example, Andrew Holland played Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith, but he's depicted as Robinson's traveling companion and the ghostwriter for Robinson's newspaper column during his rookie season. The film ignores Smith's key role as an agitator and leader of the long crusade to integrate baseball before Robinson became a household name.

 

Robinson’s political views reflected the tensions of Cold War liberalism. In 1949, Rickey orchestrated Robinson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee so that he could publicly criticize Paul Robeson, who had stirred controversy by stating in a Paris speech that American blacks would not fight in a war with Russia. As expected, Robinson challenged Robeson’s patriotism. “I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare for any of us to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass,” Robinson said.

But Robinson also seized the opportunity, six years before the Montgomery Bus boycott catalyzed the modern civil rights movement, to make an impassioned demand for social justice and racial integration. “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans,” Robinson said to Congress. The press focused on Robinson’s criticism of Robeson and virtually ignored his denunciation of American racism.

Shortly before his death, Robinson said he regretted his remarks about Robeson. “I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truth about America’s destructiveness,” he acknowledged. “And I do have an increased respect for Paul Robeson, who sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

AP Photo/File

In this March 6, 1948, file photo, Jackie Robinson returns an autograph book to a fan in the stands, during the Dodgers' spring training in Ciudad Trujillo, now Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. 

Robinson viewed his sports celebrity as a platform from which to challenge American racism. Many sportswriters and most other players—including some of his fellow black players, who were content simply to be playing in the majors—considered Robinson too angry and vocal about racism in baseball and society.

Robinson recognized that the dismantling of baseball's color line was a triumph of both a man and a movement. During and after his playing days, he joined the civil rights crusade, speaking out—in speeches, interviews, and his column—against racial injustice.

When Robinson retired from baseball in 1956, no team offered him a position as a coach, manager, or executive. Instead, he became an executive with the Chock Full O' Nuts restaurant chain, and an advocate for integrating corporate America. He lent his name and prestige to several business ventures, including a construction company and a black-owned bank in Harlem. He got involved in these business activities primarily to help address the shortage of affordable housing and persistent redlining (lending discrimination against blacks) by white-owned banks. Both the construction company and the bank later fell on hard times and dimmed Robinson's confidence in black capitalism as a strategy for racial integration.

In 1960, Robinson supported Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator and civil rights stalwart from Minnesota, in his campaign for president. When John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, however, Robinson shocked his liberal fans by endorsing Richard Nixon. Robinson believed that Nixon had a better track record than JFK on civil rights issues, but by the end of the campaign—especially after Nixon refused to make an appearance in Harlem—he regretted his choice.

During the 1960s, Robinson was a constant presence at civil rights rallies and picket lines, and he chaired the NAACP's fundraising drive. Angered by the GOP's opposition to civil rights legislation, he supported Humphrey over Nixon in 1968. But he became increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of change.

“I cannot possibly believe,” he wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, published shortly before he died of a heart attack and complications from diabetes at age 53 in 1972, “that I have it made while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”

During the late 1960s, Robinson was called an “Uncle Tom” by some of the younger generation of militant black nationalists because of his support for racial integration. After his death, he was almost a forgotten man. While baseball aficionados continued to admire his life and legacy, he was no longer a well-known figure in popular culture. In 1990, Sport magazine discovered that many Major League ball players, including many African American superstars, knew little about Robinson except that he had broken baseball’s color line.

That changed in 1997, the 50th anniversary of his rookie season, which saw a proliferation of conferences, museum exhibits, plays, and books celebrating Robinson’s life. President Bill Clinton appeared with Rachel Robinson at a Mets-Dodgers game at Shea Stadium to venerate her late husband. Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number—42—for all teams. Now, every player on every team wears that number once a year—on April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s first Major League game. These efforts have restored Robinson’s reputation. But while these commemorations have heralded Robinson as a courageous American pioneer, they’ve mostly downplayed the protest movement that opened the door for him.

 

By 1952, five years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, only six of Major League Baseball's 16 teams had a black player. It was not until 1959 that the last holdout, the Boston Red Sox, brought an African American onto its roster. The black players who followed Robinson shattered the stereotype—once widespread among many team owners, sportswriters, and white fans—that there weren't many African Americans “qualified” to play at the Major League level. Between 1949 and 1960, black players won eight out of 12 Rookie of the Year awards, and nine out of 12 Most Valuable Player awards in the National League, which was much more integrated than the American League. Many former Negro League players, including Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Don Newcombe, and Ernie Banks, were perennial All-Stars.

But academic studies conducted from the 1960s through the 1990s uncovered persistent discrimination. For example, teams were likely to favor a weak-hitting white player over a weak-hitting black player to be a benchwarmer or a utility man. And even the best black players had fewer and less lucrative commercial endorsements than their white counterparts.

Last season, players of color represented 41.2 percent of Major League rosters, according to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport  (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. Black athletes represented only 8.3 percent of Major League players—a dramatic decline from the peak of 27 percent in 1975, and less than half the 19 percent of 1995. Their shrinking proportion is due primarily to the growing number of Latino (29.3 percent) and Asian (1.2 percent) players, including many foreign-born athletes, now populating Major League rosters.

But there are also sociological and economic reasons for the decline of black ball players. The semi-pro, sandlot, and industrial teams that once thrived in black communities, serving as feeders to the Negro Leagues and then the Major Leagues, have disappeared. Basketball and football have replaced baseball as the most popular sports in black communities, where funding for public school baseball teams and neighborhood playgrounds with baseball fields has declined. Major League teams more actively recruit young players from Latin America, who are typically cheaper to hire than black Americans, as Adrian Burgos, in Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (2007) and Rob Ruck, in Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (2012) document.

Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File

In this Jan. 18, 2016 file photo, Rachel Robinson, widow of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, left, and filmmaker Ken Burns participate in the "Jackie Robinson" panel at the PBS Winter TCA in Pasadena, Calif. 

In the 16 years he lived after his retirement in 1956, Robinson pushed baseball to hire blacks as managers and executives and even refused an invitation to participate in the 1969 Old Timers game because he did not yet see “genuine interest in breaking the barriers that deny access to managerial and front office positions.” At his final public appearance, throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game Two of the 1972 World Series, shortly before he died, Robinson accepted a plaque honoring the 25th anniversary of his MLB debut, then observed: “I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

No major league team had a black manager until Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians in 1975. The majors' first black general manager—the Atlanta Braves' Bill Lucas—wasn't hired until 1977.

On opening day this month, 27 of MLB’s 30 managers were white. There are only two black managers (Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Nationals) and one Latino manager (the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez). This is a big drop from the 10 managers of color who took the field in 2009.

Two people of color own Major League teams—Arturo Moreno, a Latino, who has owned the Los Angeles Angels since 2003, and basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is part of the group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. As the TIDES report documents, there are few African Americans, Latinos, or Asians among MLB teams’ top management.

Earlier this year, speaking with Ken Burns at a screening of his new film for TV critics, Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson echoed sentiments similar to those her husband expressed 44 years ago. She said: “There is a lot more that needs to be done and can be done” in terms of hiring and promoting people of color as managers and top executives in Major League Baseball.

Like baseball, American society—including our workplaces, Congress and other legislative bodies, friendships, and even families—is more integrated than it was in Robinson's day. But there is still an ongoing debate about the magnitude of racial progress, as measured by persistent residential segregation, a significantly higher poverty rate among blacks than whites, and widespread racism within our criminal justice and prison systems.

As Robinson understood, these inequities cannot be solved by individual effort alone. It also requires grassroots activism and protest to attain changes in government policy and business practices. Robinson's legacy reminds us of the unfinished agenda of the civil rights revolution and of the important role that movements play in moving the country closer to its ideals.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Dusty Baker serves as manager for the Cincinnati Reds. In fact, he serves as manager for the Washington Nationals. 

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