Ken Burns says that as far back as 1994, when his nine-part TV series “Baseball” aired, he had discussions with Rachel Robinson about doing a “stand-alone” film on her husband, the Hall of Fame Dodger and civil rights pioneer, Jackie Robinson.
“He’s the most important person in baseball,” says Burns, the award-winning filmmaker. “Jackie was such a huge part of the ‘Baseball’ series, and Rachel kept telling me, ‘(Jackie) deserves a stand-alone treatment.’”
Monday and Tuesday, PBS will air the culmination of a years-long project that Burns, his daughter Sarah and David McMahon produced and directed — the two-part “Jackie Robinson” documentary that encompasses the entire life of Robinson: from his birth in Georgia to his UCLA days; his Army career to his career in the Negro Leagues; his historic start with the Dodgers to his marriage to Rachel, raising his three children, his post-baseball life as a civil rights activist and successful businessman, and the legacy he left behind after his death in 1972.
Some of the most compelling parts of the documentary are the interviews with Rachel, who revisits many painful and heart-wrenching moments, including the racism and bigotry they both faced while Jackie began his career with the Dodgers; the truth behind the relationship between Jackie and Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese; and the death of their oldest child, Jackie Jr., in 1971 from a car accident.
“She was willing to open up her heart as well as her memory,” says Burns. “The film is also a love story — a multi-generational portrait of an African-American family, which you just don’t get that often.”
Burns adds that one of the goals of the documentary was to try and extinguish some of the myths that had long existed about Robinson’s life. In the film, writer Jonathan Eig is interviewed and talks about how Reese, a Hall of Famer as well, had supposedly wrapped his arm around Robinson as a show of support during a game in Cincinnati in 1947, the same year Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Eig says Robinson was the target of horrible verbal taunts and abuse in Cincinnati.
But Eig says he doesn’t think that gesture ever happened. And Burns says part of the reason why the myth persisted is that “the fish gets bigger the farther away you get from the lake.” The film points out that there were no reports of the gesture in any newspaper story that year. The film also has an interview with famed writer, Roger Kahn (“The Boys of Summer”), who says that Reese’s father, a railroad detective in Louisville, once took his son to a tree and said, “When a n—– gets uppity, that’s the branch we hang him from.”
Rachel Robinson says when the idea for a statue of her husband and Reese was originally proposed, she was against the idea of it showing Reese with his arm around Jackie (the statue is outside MCU Park, the Brooklyn Cyclones’ home field in Coney Island). She wanted the statue to depict a photo that shows Jackie and Reese touching hands near home plate after Robinson scored a run.
“This is the way we want to present that relationship between that black man and that white man — as partners. No one would buy it,” says Rachel in the film. In another part of the film, the former Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine says that during a birthday celebration for Reese at Ebbets Field one year, the grounds crew went to the top of the stadium and ran up a Confederate flag in honor of Reese’s Louisville roots. Erskine says Robinson was livid in the clubhouse later that day.
It is a compelling film that includes interviews with President Obama and his wife, Michelle; Hall of Famer Willie Mays; Harry Belafonte; the late broadcaster Red Barber; and Jackie and Rachel Robinson’s surviving children, David and Sharon.
“I think the thing I miss the most is having a trusted friend. I do have friends, I have good friends. But it’s not like having Jack,” says Rachel Robinson.