Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson: ‘The Most Important Person in the History of American Sports’

The new two-part PBS documentary Jackie Robinson examines the legendary, boundary-breaking baseball player’s life beyond the field.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images via PBS

Before the United States Supreme Court ruled separate but equal schools unconstitutional, and before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Jackie Robinson walked onto the field as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making history as the first African-American to integrate Major League Baseball.

Robinson was a complicated man who navigated an even more complicated world that both celebrated and despised him. And in the new documentary Jackie Robinson, which will air on PBS April 11 and 12, we get a rare glimpse into the struggles and strength of one of the nation’s most athletically gifted and politically complex citizens.

The film is the latest project by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, who has documented the American experience for more than 25 years including films on jazz, the Civil War, and Thomas Jefferson. This time, he enlists the help of his daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon to examine the life of the legendary baseball great.

Robinson, Burns told The Daily Beast, “is the most important person without a doubt in the history of baseball.”

“I would argue that he is the most important person in the history of American sports and he is one of the greatest Americans who’s ever lived—period,” said Burns.

And this two-part, four-hour series proves his case.

In the documentary, Robinson is voiced by Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, and it features interviews with Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson, daughter Sharon Robinson, and son David Robinson. There are also appearances by Tom Brokaw, Carly Simon, Harry Belafonte, and a host of former baseball players, historians, and experts who recall Robinson’s legacy and impact on the sport and nation.

There are a few surprises, too.

“Jackie Robinson laid the foundation for America to see its black citizens as subjects and not just objects,” President Obama notes in the film. “It meant that there were 6-, 7- and 8-year-old boys who suddenly thought a black man was a hero.”

Indeed. Many are familiar with Robinson as a baseball hero. Few, however, know of the inner turmoil that came with the historic status. The 2013 movie 42 offered a glimpse into the racism and discrimination that Robinson encountered during his major league career, but the PBS documentary goes a bit further in demonstrating how Robinson developed the fortitude to endure prejudice and seemingly never-ending racist attacks.

“They may not have called it Black Lives Matter or stop-and-frisk, but Jackie was a firsthand recipient of that bad treatment,” Burns said.

Born Jack Roosevelt Robinson in a small town in Georgia, Robinson was the grandson of slaves and the youngest son of a sharecropper. His mother bought a home in an all-white neighborhood and though the family faced constant harassment, including burned crosses in their front yard, she refused to move.

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Her son would have the same defiant spirit.

Robinson sat at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworths and did not leave until he was served. He went to a movie theater and moved from the balcony—the designated section where blacks could sit—to the main part of the theater on the lower level. And during his time in the Negro Leagues, Robinson refused to buy gas from gas stations that did not allow African Americans to use the restroom.

It was this Jackie Robinson that Branch Rickey signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Rickey “was looking for a soldier,” remembers Rachel Robinson.

There was no question of Robinson’s athletic ability. As the documentary points out, he lettered in four sports at UCLA and had done well in his minor league debut. But could Robinson resist the need to retaliate when assaulted, insulted, threatened, or provoked? That would be the true measure of his strength.

It would be a difficult task.

More than a third of the players in Major League Baseball came from Confederate states and didn’t like the idea of playing with an African American. The documentary notes how “pitchers aimed for his head” and “crowds rained down abuse.” Robinson was called “boy” and kicked with spiked cleats. There were death threats and hate mail from those who opposed his presence.

“I really don’t know how he survived and performed the way he performed on the baseball field,” said Don Newcombe, who played alongside Robinson.

It was a hostile work environment for sure and even Robinson didn’t know how long he could endure the mistreatment.

“I was overestimating my stamina and underestimating the beating I was taking,” Robinson had said.

And the journey could be lonely. Because of segregation, Robinson could not stay at the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as his teammates. And he was further isolated in the locker room, where he showered separately and was given space in a corner.

Then there was the pressure to uphold the race.

“We looked upon Jackie as someone bringing hope—that things were going to get better. This was the beginning of a change,” said Ed Charles of the Jacksonville Braves in the film.

Robinson’s wife, Rachel, said her husband felt the weight of black people on his shoulders.

“He knew if he failed that social progress was going to get set back,” said Rachel Robinson.

But it was Rachel’s presence that helped Jackie Robinson endure all the pressure, says first lady Michelle Obama in the documentary. Their partnership brought a sense of solace and peace that helped the baseball player withstand the negativity.

“I don’t think you would have had Jackie Robinson without Rachel,” the first lady noted. “To go back and have refuge with someone who you know has your back, that’s priceless.”

One way Robinson fought back was by doing well, said Rachel Robinson.

By the end of his first year as a Brooklyn Dodger, Robinson had made the cover of Time magazine, was named “Rookie of the Year” by Sporting News, led the Dodgers in home runs and doubles, and the National League in steals. And baseball named April 15 Jackie Robinson Day, which is still celebrated today.

Robinson was the most famous and admired black man in the country. He was also the second-most popular American after Bing Crosby.

But despite the baseball great’s fame and popularity, the Robinsons experienced housing bias and had difficulty finding a home. American attitudes hadn’t changed much. Though many admired Robinson’s athleticism on the field, fewer folks wanted him as a neighbor.

The slow pace of progress was frustrating for Robinson. “You could change the laws but not the hearts of some people,” Burns said.

Part two of the series looks at Robinson’s life after baseball, working to change the status of blacks in America. Robinson was a columnist, an entrepreneur, and traveled with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This is the Jackie Robinson few know and one of the most compelling parts of the documentary. He organized a jazz concert at his home after seeing children in Birmingham attacked by police dogs and sprayed with water hoses. He traveled to the March on Washington with his son and a month later held a rally in Harlem for the four little girls who were killed during a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

“He got up every single day and tried to make the lives of other people, mostly African Americans, better, and very few of us can say that,” said Burns.

But Robinson did not always walk in lockstep with the majority of black America. For example, he testified against famed star Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee, supported Richard Nixon (whom he denounced eight years later), and worked for New York Gov. John Rockefeller.

As the movement became more militant, with those such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown at the forefront, Robinson was called an Uncle Tom and out of touch with the masses. Some even challenged whether he could identify with their struggle because of his success.

“Now people have been saying that—Jackie Robinson of all people here in this country, you have less right to protest against what’s going on than anybody that I know of,” Robinson said during a speech. “They say, Jackie Robinson, you have it made and you ought not to be a part of this movement. And I say to you that whether you like it or not, that there is not one Negro, not one that I know in this country, that has it made until the most underprivileged Negro in St. Augustine, Florida, has it made.”

The documentary also sheds light on Robinson’s family life. He felt he had failed as a father when his oldest son Jackie Jr., who struggled with drug addiction, was arrested. The son died in a car accident in 1971.

In 1962, Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Ten years later, he was invited to throw out the first pitch at the 1972 World Series. Nine days after that Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack. He was only 53 years old.

In the last years of his life, Robinson was saddened to see that baseball hadn’t changed much. Though there were more players of color on the field, there were still no African-American managers in the front office. Was his sacrifice worth it?

“He changed the entire country,” said writer Howard Bryant. “He was a guy who took on everything that we were afraid to face, and faced it and succeeded. We should all be very, very grateful.”

In the opening shot of Jackie Robinson, viewers see the legendary player on a baseball field ready to bat. The next shot is of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice with a towering Washington Monument in the background.

This was Jackie Robinson: baseball and civil rights legend.

The two-part four-hour documentary series Jackie Robinson airs on PBS April 11 and 12. The DVD and Blu-ray are available on April 12.