Filmmaker Ken Burns vows true portrait of 'most important person in the history of baseball'

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Eddie Stanky (from left), Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, all former Brooklyn Dodgers, meet before Old Timer's Day on July 25, 1964. (Getty)

Jackie Robinson

Eddie Stanky (from left), Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, all former Brooklyn Dodgers, meet before Old Timer's Day on July 25, 1964. (Getty)

Race burbles through so many of Ken Burns’ films, a predominant subtext in the great American stories he chooses to tell. Twenty years ago this week, as Burns’ epic “Baseball” miniseries debuted and served as a nightly reminder of embarrassment over the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, he introduced the world to a man named Buck O’Neil.

Nobody distilled life in the Negro Leagues to its disturbing essence quite like Buck, a player, manager, scout and, best of all, master raconteur. And yet he still radiated dignity amid cultural indignity, romanticized portions of our history that otherwise would’ve been relegated to the deepest and darkest corners of shame. There could be beauty in the Negro Leagues, this entity that never should have existed in the first place, because people like Buck brought shades of gray to a world that couldn’t bring itself to see black.

Filmmaker Ken Burns calls Jackie Robinson 'the very definition of a hero.' (AP)
Filmmaker Ken Burns calls Jackie Robinson 'the very definition of a hero.' (AP)

Baseball’s greatest triumph unfolded in similar fashion, though history weaves a different tale. The Jackie Robinson given to America is one-dimensional, almost cartoonish in the fashion movies and books present him as a hero. It’s the sort of cop-out Burns no longer could stomach, not with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, urging him for a decade now to give Robinson the sort of treatment his life deserves, the honest look at him from birth to death and everything in between. Not with April 15, 1947, a seminal moment in history with a paucity of context.

Along with his daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon, Burns is deep into production on a two- or three-part documentary about Robinson. He planned on releasing it in 2015, though with such a wealth of information found during research, Burns said a 2016 air date is likelier.

“He is the most important person in the history of baseball,” Burns told Yahoo Sports in a recent conversation. “This is a hero who has sort of been draped in such superficiality, it’s been impossible to get at the real, and very interesting, and very complicated human being behind all the hagiography.

“It has to do with the laziness of our media culture, the ability for superficiality to trump depth. For us to even call someone a hero without acknowledging other sides is the opposite of what a hero is. The Greeks will tell you what defines heroism is a war between their very obvious strengths and their possibly equal weaknesses. We’re perpetually disappointed in our media culture because we assume perfection and incorrectly label heroes someone that does something out of the ordinary. But Jackie Robinson is the very definition of a hero, a very complicated person who’s struggling in the larger stage forced upon him to deal with content of character.”

Burns’ story starts with a child born into Jim Crow laws in rural southern Georgia, his middle name Roosevelt, after the president who invited Booker T. Washington to the White House – and whom Burns is chronicling in a PBS documentary airing this week. His stories often intersect like that because they aspire to the greater themes that tie together the country’s history, like family and privilege. Robinson’s father abandoned him. He witnessed the systematic disenfranchisement of his brother, Mack, an Olympic silver medalist who finished fractions of a second behind Jesse Owens, relegated to sweeping the streets of Pasadena, Calif.

“And so Jackie, a man with a temper,” Burns said, “a fiery man who is proud of his dark skin, is then asked to turn the other cheek and take on the greatest experiment in sports.”

The film will dive into Robinson’s ascent to the Dodgers and try to answer whether Pee Wee Reese truly put his arm around Robinson to promote his inclusion, as the famous story goes. (The answer: Probably not.) It will look beyond 1947, to the rest of his Hall of Fame career, from the early days when leaders in the black community worried he was too radical to the mid-to-late 1960s, when a new generation considered Robinson an “Uncle Tom,” even though he hadn’t changed.

Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color barrier on April 15, 1947. (AP)
Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color barrier on April 15, 1947. (AP)

Those are the snippets that give Robinson’s life the full treatment it warrants, one in which race isn’t treated as a plot point around which to build a character into something more than he is.

“The baseball story, let’s be honest, is written by white guys,” Burns said. “We want to feel good about ourselves, so we tend to select the information we make, and we don’t do anybody, not ourselves nor Jackie, any service by not painting a fuller picture.”

Still, Burns is quick to point out “this was the first real progress in civil rights since the collapse of reconstruction after the Civil War. It didn’t happen in Montgomery, Ala., after the bus. It didn’t happen at a school in Little Rock or … in Topeka, Kan. It happened on a diamond April 15, 1947.”

And so for the first time, Burns reached out beyond his usual cast of contributing voices and into the dangerous waters of politics. He understood how polarizing Barack and Michelle Obama are. It didn’t matter. A black man is president of the United States because of Jackie Robinson. A black woman is First Lady because of Jackie Robinson. Their experience – growing up a full generation after Robinson forged the paths of millions – is his legacy. They paid him proper homage, bringing an intimate perspective of the black experience – the triumph and the struggle – in a post-Robinson world.

It is a place still fraught with issues, the horrors of Ferguson, Mo., laid bare in high definition, or at least as HD as a camera can get when blanketed in tear gas. It was the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in a post-racial society, which shows that for everything Robinson did, four generations later the gross mistreatment of blacks not only exists but pervades.

In every baseball stadium, Robinson’s No. 42 hangs, permanently retired, an homage to his fight. Even though it’s the most visible tribute to Robinson, it’s a tiny, homogenous slice, just a fraction of his greater story. Baseball’s greatest story – the entirety of Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s rich life – will arrive soon enough, long overdue and just in time.

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