Friday, April 15, 2016

Jackie Robinson

There is a revealing moment that comes toward the end of the new PBS documentary on the life and times of Jackie Robinson. I'm not thinking of the clips of the magnificent ballplayer stealing home against Whitey Ford and the Yankees in game one of the 1955 World Series, or the noble civil rights leader marching with Martin Luther King. Nor am I thinking of the indignant man battling injustice directed at him and his people, or the successful businessperson, or the loving father in the arms of his family.

In 1966, Robinson worked as a special assistant for community affairs in New York during the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Given Robinson's achievements up to that point, not to mention his support of Rockefeller during the 1964 Republican presidential campaign, he probably could have had his pick of positions in that administration. The film clip I'm thinking of was shot at a community meeting where frustrated African American citizens were bringing concerns about issues plaguing their community to the table. In his capacity as the representative of the government, Robinson appeared shell-shocked at the barrage of criticisms brought before him. Clearly frustrated at not having the answers to these people's problems, he left the meeting by saying: "we'll get back to you."

Robinson the bureaucrat is hardly the image of St. Jack most of us are accustomed to seeing. However when you think about it, a lesser man in that situation might have just thrown up his hands and said: "Hey I'm Jackie Fucking Robinson, I broke baseball's color barrier. I don't need this shit."

Another clip shows Robinson humbly telling a woman that while his athletic accomplishments came easy to him, his new found career in service to others was hard, and it took lots of learning.

After his baseball career ended, Robinson could have retired to a comfortable life resting on his laurels, and settling down in his Stamford, Connecticut home with his wife Rachel and their three children. No none would have thought the lesser of him.

But as we all know by now, that was not Jackie Robinson. This quote of his closed part one of the documentary:
If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.
Having said that, Robinson could have taken an easier road toward being an advocate for his people. He could have followed the orthodox ideological path many of his contemporaries took. But his convictions prevented him from doing that too. He understood that life is complicated, and you can't simply find plug-in answers to difficult questions. Through all the heartaches and struggles the civil rights movement suffered in the sixties, Jackie Robinson still believed it was important to work within the system rather than against it. Rightly or wrongly, he didn't buy into the notion of changing the world by any means necessary.

For that he was excoriated by members of the black community, many of whom felt he was an old man out of touch with the times. Despite all he did for the cause of civil rights, he was labeled an Uncle Tom by some of his own people. I can only guess those words were infinitely more painful than all the invectives hurled at him by white players and fans during his baseball playing days put together.

Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Isum Robinson approached Ken Burns about a decade ago, asking him to follow up his nine part documentary called Baseball, which prominently featured her husband, with a new film that would exclusively feature him. Previous commitments prevented Burns from immediately acting upon her request, but he enlisted the help of his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon to assist with the production of the Robinson film.

The film they made is a cohesive portrayal of the man and the struggles he faced during his lifetime. The filmmakers avoided the pitfalls of turning their work into hagiography, as so many portrayals of the Robinson have turned out, including the one in Ken Burns's Baseball. There was even a token effort to get into the heads of some of Robinson's fellow ballplayers who balked at the idea of playing with or against a black man. Unfortunately Dixie Walker, Enos Slaughter and the rest of the players who objected to Robinson's presence in the big leagues are no longer around to speak for themselves. That task was given to Robinson's teammate, pitcher Carl Erskine, who without condoning their behavior, explained their position as being Southerners brought up in a society that sincerely believed it was morally wrong for black and white people to mix. Even the late Red Barber, beloved to generations of NPR listeners for his weekly, homespun interviews with radio host Bob Edwards, admitted in archival footage from the original baseball documentary that he once believed having blacks playing ball with whites was wrong, and seriously considered quitting his job as the voice of the Dodgers over the signing of Jackie Robinson. It took Branch Rickey's tremendous power of persuasion to convince him to stick around.

Along with seeing Barber again, one of the joys of this Robinson film was seeing Buck O'Neil one more time. O'Neil, unquestionably the star of the original baseball series, was Robinson's teammate on the Kansas City Monarchs during the very brief time that Jackie played in the Negro Leagues. O'Neil gave interviews (not included here) where he described the position of white ballplayers at the time in practical terms. The black players he said, who would be coming into the league would be competing for the white players' jobs. Small wonder few major leaguers were thrilled at the prospect of several dozen new ballplayers competing for what few roster spots there already were.

Despite efforts to be as balanced as possible, Team Burns did seem to have an agenda in the making of this film, bending over backwards to make sure that white people didn't get too much of the credit for the integration of baseball.

In an interview published in an ESPN article titled: Jackie Robinson documentary kills myths of civil rights legend, Ken Burns said, referring to his original baseball documentary:
We sort of postulated that Branch Rickey reached down and touched Jackie, like Michelangelo,. He was supposed to be God, and Jackie was Jesus...(1) It wasn't just Branch Rickey alone in the wilderness. It was a black press that had been active for decades pushing it. It was a left-wing press.
Well it's not very likely that the black or left wing press held much sway with white America, let alone major league baseball back in the forties, so that last statement of Burns is over-reaching at best. For his part, Branch Rickey readily admitted that in addition to sincerely believing it was the right thing to do, much of his inspiration for bringing black players into the big leagues was money. This was never much of a secret so I find it a little surprising that folks like the author of the ESPN piece seemed surprised that "Branch Rickey wasn't Abraham Lincoln as a Major League Baseball executive." Of course anyone with a sense of history knows that Abraham Lincoln himself wasn't exactly Abraham Lincoln either.

The article and film suggest that Branch Rickey acted when he did in order to avoid repercussions from Mayor Fiorello Laguardia's threats of sanctions against the three New York teams if they did not integrate. What the article and film fail to point out are the incredible lengths Rickey went to keeping his plans of breaking  the color barrier secret until the time was right, including creating a smokescreen by planting a story that he was scouting black players in order to create a new Negro League. I think it is very clear that without Branch Rickey, his devotion to the cause, and his masterful manipulation of both the press and major league baseball, the integration of the game would not have happened for at least another five years if not more. It is disingenuous for Burns or anyone who knows anything about the subject to suggest otherwise.

The film touches upon the Dodgers' insistence that Robinson testify in 1949 before the House Un-American Activities Commission in regards to singer Paul Robeson's comment that black people would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union and Communism. Robinson was reluctant to testify but feared his job and the future of blacks in the big leagues were at stake, so he gave in. Many people in the black community were bitterly disappointed by Robinson's supposed betrayal of Robeson, himself a great hero to the movement.

But Robinson's statement, which he allegedly had Rickey's help composing, turned the tables on the commission, stating unequivocally that it was not the appeal of Communism that was turning blacks against this nation, but the continued treatment of an entire race as second class citizens. He added that the fact that Communists were exploiting race problems in the United States for their own benefit, did not mean the causes for those problems did not exist. Unfortunately the Burns film merely glosses over the substance of Robinson's comments before the committee, focusing on only a few trite words about being more concerned about his upcoming contract with the Dodgers than politics. You can find his complete statement to the committee here.

It wasn't his words in the end but the fact that he appeared at all before a committee bent on condemning Paul Robeson that soured his reputation with many in the black community. What should have been one of his finest moments, turned into a very bitter experience which he regretted in his later life.

Well made as it is, like all Ken Burns films, with the exception of personal anecdotes, this film doesn't contribute much original research or insight into its subject. The fact that so many people were surprised by what they learned from the film, simply means they never cracked open a book on the subject. Jackie Robinson is one of the most celebrated Americans of the twentieth century, and the vast amount of published material on him, testifies to that fact.

Many were surprised for example that Robinson supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Robinson correctly surmised from talking to him that JFK was not informed, nor particularly cared about civil rights issues. He correctly believed that the choice of Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy's running mate was made to appease southern white voters. He also believed that the choice of Johnson would hurt black people. He turned out to be dead wrong on that one. He also turned out to be wrong about Nixon, and ended up once again being on the losing side when he endorsed Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968.

One issue that the film takes a different point of view from just about everyone else, concerns Dodger captain and shortstop Pee Wee Reese and his supposed public comforting of Robinson during his first visit with the Dodgers to an overtly hostile Cincinnati. Despite featuring the event in the original baseball series, Burns now claims the incident never happened. He is sure of this because "There is no image or write-up (of the incident) anywhere".

Well he's probably right. We'll never know for sure but Pee Wee Reese more than likely did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson's shoulder on May 13, 1947 in Cincinnati. Robinson remembers him doing it later, perhaps the following season. In the seminal book concerning the Robinson era Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn interviewed Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and several of their teammates. Reese talks about making similar gestures toward Robinson many times during their playing days with the Dodgers, but does not specifically mention Cincinnati or that particular game.

So at some point, in a show of solidarity, Reese put his arm around Robinson on the field. Given all the momentous events surrounding Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, why such a fuss over a trivial matter? (2)

According to Burns, we white folks like to hold on to "myths" like Reese putting his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati, or Branch Rickey being Abraham Lincoln, "because it gives white people skin in the game." Frankly I'm not quite sure what he means by that. I think most white people today understand that the exclusion of African American players in "organized baseball" (for lack of a better term), was a grave injustice that had to be addressed, not something given to blacks out of the kindness of the hearts of white folks. But in order for the major leagues to integrate, there had to be white people on board willing and able to make it happen. And yes, there were many white folks who did everything they could to not make it happen. But it was going to happen one way or other, regardless of those people.

In a parallel universe, there was a brilliant history of black baseball which produced some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Without those players, we would not be talking about Jackie Robinson today; he stood upon their shoulders. Unfortunately, the minute Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues, the Negro Leagues became irrelevant, and the livelihoods of thousands of folks whose lives were wrapped up in them, not just ballplayers, were lost. Despite that, I've never heard a report any of those players who were simply born at the wrong time, publicly gripe about Jackie Robinson's good fortune.

And then there was Jackie Robinson who devoted most of his life after his retirement from the game to the cause of civil rights, justice, and equality in this country. Ken Burns in his seemingly endless promotion of this film, presents Jackie Robinson as the "most important man in the history of baseball," That of course is an opinion to which he is entitled. As far as baseball is concerned, I consider Jackie Robinson the Neil Armstrong of the game. Both men were chosen to be the first at what they did, and both responded to the task in extraordinary fashion. But had it not been for those two individuals, someone else equally qualified would have been chosen, and more than likely would have done a magnificent job.

What sets Jackie Robinson apart, is his extraordinary life away from baseball. It takes a great man to humble himself  for a cause he believes is greater than himself. Robinson sacrificed everything, even the love and respect of his own people, because he believed in doing not what was popular, but what was right.

As the Neil Armstrong of the game, Jackie Robinson may not have been the most important person in the history of baseball, but I think it's safe to say that for his exemplary work both on and off the field, he is the most important baseball person in history.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day.


(1) Not to nit pick, but the person in what I believe the painting Burns is referring to in his comment is Adam, not Jesus.

(2) If Burns were truly concerned about clearing up the falsehoods found in his earlier work, he should start by correcting the hatchet job he did on the characters of Ty Cobb and Charles Comiskey.

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