Will the Real Jackie Robinson Finally Be Allowed to Stand Up Tonight?

Ken Burns promises a look at the man behind the mythical barrier-breaking ballplayer. It's about time.


April 15 marks the 69th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's racist gentlemen's agreement to bar players with dark complexions from competing in the Major Leagues. As per usual, every pro ballplayer will wear Robinson's otherwise retired number 42 on Friday; also, Adidas has unveiled special Jackie Robinson cleats for the occasion, the city of Philadelphia has issued an official apology for pelting him with racist taunts back in '47, and so on.

Over the years I have argued in these pages that the inevitable and proper lionization of the man has crowded out the nuance and individuality that made the real Jackie Robinson, if anything, greater than his myth. He was fueled by an almost alarming competitive fury, played the role of both baseball's Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, was a prolific (if often ghosted) published writer, a businessman, a Rockefeller Republican, and many things besides. He would not fit in your boxes, refused to sit in the back of your bus (quite literally, and a decade before Rosa Parks succeeded tried), and proves stubbornly hard to co-opt wholesale into whatever your contemporary politics might be.

That's why I am nervously optimistic about a new, two-part Ken Burns documentary that debuts tonight called Jackie Robinson, purporting to take a look at the real man behind the legend. Here's the promo:

Burns, a massively talented filmmaker, has long nurtured a twin obsession with baseball and race, which can tilt his output toward heavy-handedness mixed with nostalgia, but usually there's more than enough journalism there to let the real story get through. I look forward to seeing how this one comes out.

Reason on Ken Burns here. After the jump, watch Nick Gillespie interview Burns about Prohibition:

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  1. The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) wasn’t a great movie, but the guy playing Jackie Robinson looked like a real ballplayer. The speed he rounded the bases with on a triple was startling.

    1. Not sure if you were making a joke or if you honestly didn’t realize Robinson played himself in that movie. You were probably making a joke, but just in case, now you know.

      1. …and knowing is half the battle…

  2. Most historical hero figures come off to me the way the idealized glowing Jesus paintings do. Even as a kid I didn’t buy that shit.

      1. “Jesus was a Black man of Nazareth/He stood six feet tall and had a 12 inch dick.”

        –Gospel of Heroic Mulatto 1:1-2

        1. “They say that cat Jesus is a bad mutha-“

          1. Shut yo’ mouth!

            1. I’m just talking ’bout Jesus.

  3. Jackie Robinson was enormously popular while playing for the Montreal Royals. My grandfather was a baseball player (he was refused entry into the Canadian army because of a scar he got after a bat cracked his forehead while catching) and fan. He would often go down to De Lormier Downs to watch Robinson – and Sal Maglie and Roy Campanella and the rest – play ball.

    1. Delorimier.

      1. Maglie didn’t play for the Royals – I keep mixing him up with Ralph Branca for some reason.

        But Newcome, Mauch, and Drysdale did.

        1. In fairness, Maglie played for everyone else.

    2. Your Grandfather | grand-p?re was refused the chance to serve because of a scar?

      1. Yup. So he told the story.

  4. What’s up with Ken Burns’ hair?

    1. PBS doesn’t pay well enough for a grownup haircut. Although somehow they had enough money to commission the Sesame Street people to make a Muppet called David McMahon for that trailer.

    2. Ken Burns lives in rural NH; he must grow a quasi-mullet or risk being eaten by the local tribes of head-hunters.

  5. As per [sic] usual

    You do this just to annoy me, don’t you, Matt?

  6. Did the “City of Philadelphia” racially taunt Jackie Robinson or was it the baseball fans that turned out at the ball park? Somehow these instances of a government today “apologizing” for individuals’ misbehavior decades ago rubs me the wrong way.

    1. Did the “City of Philadelphia” racially taunt Jackie Robinson

      Have you ever been to Phily?

      1. Yes, I lived there and actually saw Jackie play in the mid-50s. Don’t recall any booing-just some good natured cheers when he took the field one inning while he was still buttoning up his pants from a potty break.

        1. “the city of Philadelphia has issued an official apology for pelting him with racist taunts back in ’47”

          Still haven’t apologized to Santa Claus or Mike Schmidt, though. Phuck Philly.

  7. Do they cover the part where Jackie Robinson isn’t actually the first black man to play professional baseball? I always found that part interesting.

    1. Briefly, yes.

  8. Was Ken Burns the guy who directed that paean-cum-documentary about the Roosevelts?

    1. I think he is the one who did the program about the Old Negro Space Program

    2. Probably

      He has much love for the Roosevelts.

      The most annoying thing about watching his documentaries ‘The War’ and ‘The Dust Bowl’ and to a certain extent ‘The West’ and ‘The National Parks’ is the excessive praise for both Roosevelts.

      They are otherwise very interesting documentaries, if you can ignore that.

  9. Nothing as American as baseball and racism, eh boys?

  10. It only took about 40 minutes for you to understand Robinson as a civil rights badass before he even joined the Dodgers. A man who was unafraid to stand up for his race by standing up for himself.

    God only knows where civil rights would be with this current generation of couch-fainters.

    1. Progs today would hate him…I admire that he would never claim to be a victim. He kicked ass at every stage of his life on all fronts, despite huge forces lined up against him.

      I wasn’t born when he played, but shit happened quickly. I was a kid in a lily white small farming town in Minnesota in the early 60’s… my favorite players were almost all latin or black (outside of Idaho’s Harmon Killibrew). Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versailles, Camilo Pascual, Rod Carew.

      There were basically no minorities in my town at the time, yet my white ass had minority heroes. It happened in less than 10 years and within that time players like Mays and Aaron and Bob Gibson were dominant. I did not give a shit that they were a certain race, I knew that they were really good.

      Change can happen fast, which it did in baseball, so there is some hope for the future.

  11. Watched the show, typical Burns, idealogue that he is he still tells a good story (other than Obumbles and the first dumbass lady) . I have loved baseball for 60 years, I will love baseball til I die.

    I’ll watch tomorrow as well, despite Burn’s trying to make it a progtard thing, baseball is a great equalizer.

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