Sunday, April 17, 2016

Notes on Ken Burns' Jackie Robinson

I thought I knew it all coming in…the trajectory of his career on and off the field. He was my hero back in the day. I followed him from his rookie season. I even met him in the subway once. But there was some great old footage I’d either never seen before or forgotten. His wife, Rachel, adds class to the entire narrative providing striking details and warmth. She was Robinson’s life partner in every sense.

Baseball fans learn the lesson of knowing how to fail. The most successful teams lose about 60 games in a season. As a congenital Dodger fan I know the feeling. The identification never stops. With bad fortune I suffer a tiny bit; with good news I take credit. When they were the first to break the color barrier it was as if I were part of that decision. And when the Brooklyn team followed me to L.A. I nearly regarded the move as pre-ordained.

I’ve long felt that Jackie Robinson was the greatest all-around athlete in American history. His excellence in track and field, basketball and football was reinforced by the documentary. Baseball was an after-thought. The indignities of racism factored into his performance gave his athleticism an added dimension.

The prevailing comment often heard about Robinson was how restrained he was and commendable his enduring the threats against him. So much of this is a white man’s fantasy. After his second season he showed his fierce competitive spirit which the bigotry only ignited.

Jackie Robinson changed the game from a pastoral, gentlemanly one to an urban, daring sport. He put ghetto in the game. He enlivened it in the way Caribbean players are injecting energy and emotion again today. Baseball is by its very nature slow and stoic. Black players have changed the level of excitement of what was once our national pastime.

By 1954 I had begun to lose the thread. That summer I moved from New York. I was newly married and newly licensed as a pharmacist; a man-child impersonating an adult. As I was starting my career his was declining due to undiagnosed diabetes.

His playing days ended with the effrontery of being traded by the Dodgers to the Giants in 1956. He quit rather than report to the crosstown rival. The team has since exploited his name and their part in desegregating baseball. They never speak of the way they dumped him.

Robinson evolved in terms of political consciousness. He resented how Democrats took the Black vote for granted harkening back to the days of FDR. He demanded something in return and he got it. After first embracing Nixon in 1959 he denounced the Republicans when Kennedy intervened for M.L. King’s release from prison after the Eisenhower administration walked away.

From then on he marched many times alongside civil rights leaders during the turbulent sixties. I hadn’t known the extent of his involvement. The program also reminded me of those dreadful days, the pathology of America and our continuing shame. It brought home the role Jackie Robinson played waking up white society to the evils of Jim Crow.

When number 42 took the field thousands followed in his wake beyond the sports world, in every level of American life. His place in the history books is iconic.


  1. Jackie Robinson in the subway? What's going on? Next thing you'll tell me you got autographs from Reese, Hodges, and Furillo too? So whatever did you do with all those now invaluable documents?

  2. The Bible said to put away childish I got rid of the Bible.