We’re avid DVRers and rarely watch anything, other than sports or the news, live on the electric teevee machine. We made an exception the last two nights to watch Ken Burns’ new film about Jackie Robinson on PBS. It’s an excellent look at a fascinating life, make that lives because I think the title should have been Jackie & Rachel. The Rachel in question is, of course, Jack’s remarkable 93-year-old wife, Rachel Isom Robinson, who has survived him by 44 years.
Rachel wasn’t your typical athlete’s wife: she was Jack’s partner in everything he did. She was more than just a cheerleader or a trophy wife: like Jack, she was a force of nature and remains one to this very day. She’s also aged astonishingly well and is more beautiful today than ever:
Rachel was the one who convinced Ken Burns to make this 4 hour film in order to place Jackie in a broader historical context. Burns had focused on the best-known part of Robinson’s legacy in his Baseball documentary or as we call it in our house: Ode to the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox. Jackie the heroic pioneer is the easiest part of his story to tell, which is why it’s been done before, most recently in the fine 2013 bio-pic 42.
The most interesting part of Jackie Robinson is the second two-hours, which cover the years *after* Branch Rickey let Jackie be Jackie. The unspoken part of the integration saga-even in this fine film-is that Rickey wanted someone who would stand up for themselves and black folks *after* proving they could play. That’s one reason Robinson and not his easy going teammate Roy Campanella was selected to break the color line. In the argot of the day, Jackie was a race man. Additionally, Rickey wanted there to be a black pitcher on the Dodgers who could protect Jack if need be. 6’4″ fireballer Don Newcombe joined the team in 1949, which was when the gloves came off as it were.
The post-baseball years were tough for Jackie but he kept on keeping on. His belief in integration came under fire in the mid-Sixties but Jack’s views have stood the test of time. An armed minority is going to get shot down in the streets, which is one reason he was adamantly opposed to violence. Besides, this country doesn’t do revolutions, we evolve; a lesson that some people *still* need to learn.
I give Jackie Robinson high marks but before issuing my final report card, I have a few more baseball related nits to pick. First, in episode one, they give Branch Rickey way too much credit for the Dodgers success. The film states that he hired Leo Durocher as manager when he took over the Dodgers in 1942. Wrong. The Lip was hired by Rickey’s predecessor as GM, Larry MacPhail in 1939. There’s also the implication that they were on the skids when Rickey arrived. Wrong again. They won the pennant in 1941. I’m surprised that Ken Burns let these mistakes get into the final script. He knows better.
A smaller quibble, there were sporadic attempts to break the color line before the Rickey-Robinson experience. Bill Veeck hoped to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with black players during World War II. He made the mistake of running it by Commissioner Landis. They were sold to another ownership group. It’s unclear if this actually happened or is one of Veeck’s more, uh, colorful stories but I *hope* it’s true at least in the Fordian sense: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Veeck’s Cleveland Indians *were* the second team to integrate, after all.
As a Giants fan, I have to mention John McGraw’s sporadic attempts to pass off black players as Native Americans. Not very heroic but still noteworthy. Speaking of my favorite team, Jackie was traded to the Giants after the 1956 season. He retired instead of reporting but here’s a what if version of Robinson’s 1957 baseball card:
Despite a few reservations I give Jackie Robinson 3 1/2 stars, an Adrastos grade of B+ and an Ebertian thumbs up. As much as it pains me to praise a Dodger-centric documentary, it’s good enough for this Giants fan.
We’ll keep the Bill Basie theme going by giving him the last word: