The complete story of Jackie
“Jackie Robinson is the most important figure in our nation’s most important game,” explained esteemed documentarian Ken Burns in a recent PBS press release. “He gave us our first lasting progress in civil rights since the Civil War and, ever since I finished my BASEBALL series in 1994, I’ve been eager to make a standalone film about the life of this courageous American.
“There was so much more to say not only about Robinson’s barrier-breaking moment in 1947, but about how his upbringing shaped his intolerance for any form of discrimination and how after his baseball career, he spoke out tirelessly against racial injustice, even after his star had begun to dim.”
In May 2015, Sarah Burns served as the keynote speaker at the 27th Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. At the time, the daughter of Ken Burns talked about the upcoming film project on the 1962 Hall of Fame electee, who famously was the first African-American player in the 20th century to play in the big leagues when he took the field on April 15, 1947.
Prior to her visit, in a telephone interview from her Brooklyn home, Sarah Burns talked about her Robinson film, her speaking engagement in Cooperstown and joining the family business.
Hall of Fame: Hi Sarah. Can you talk about your upcoming keynote address in Cooperstown?
Sarah Burns: I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned about Jackie Robinson through this process, finding a more complicated and three-dimensional Jackie Robinson than the one I learned about as an 11-year old, about turning the other cheek as a sort of parable. I think we do a disservice to him and to us in boiling him down to such a simplified story. So I’m really going to talk about Jackie Robinson as we try and dig a little deeper and get to a greater, broader understanding of who Jackie Robinson was and what kind of impact he had.
HOF: So more about his whole life and not about just his baseball career?
HOF: Were there any surprises you came across in your research?
SB: Many people know that he was court martialed when he was in the Army for insubordination after he refused to move to the back of a bus on an Army base in Texas. I think that’s a really telling story about his temperament, his beliefs. He knew that the Army had passed regulations saying that the buses on Army bases were desegregated. But it was still an incredibly courageous and risky thing to stand up to a white civilian bus driver in Texas and say, ‘I will not move to the back of this bus.’ So that’s a really telling story.
And you see that even earlier. Even as a young man in Pasadena, as a kid, that he is not going to accept discrimination and racism and move on. He is going to identify it and criticize it and fight against it wherever he sees it. This idea that we mostly understand him, we first come to Jackie Robinson, we first learn about him through this idea of turning the other cheek, even if we understand that that’s a courageous thing, it goes against what he’s inclined to do. To understand the degree to which it was his instinct, his desire, his intention to speak out all the time whether he was an 8-year-old throwing rocks back at the father of a white girl across the street who was yelling at him and throwing rocks at him. He was not going to turn around and walk away. And I think that helps us understand turning the other cheek better and it reminds us that that’s not the whole story.
When we celebrate April 15, 1947 as this defining thing about Jackie Robinson, and certainly it is, it’s looking at him through this very narrow lens where we don’t get to understand who he really was. We in fact see him when he was being someone else."
HOF: So these admirable character traits you can trace throughout his life?
SB: Absolutely. And he’s very consistent in those. I think that period in 1946, 1947 and 1948 was the one time in his life that he was not being himself. That’s the part of his life that we most focus on, but this was the time he was wearing a mask. He was not himself. And so it’s really interesting to try and unspool the rest of his life and get a better sense of who he really was, what it was that he was suppressing in those years that we often learn about.
HOF: At the end of his life he famously was promoting the cause of Black managers.
SB: Exactly. In his last public appearance at the 1972 World Series, basically his entire speech is to say thanks for having me but I’ll be more proud and happier when I see a Black face managing. He had left baseball with kind of a sour taste in his mouth with the way things ended with the Dodgers and being traded to the Giants. He stayed away from baseball for a while. But he was definitely genuinely honored to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. That meant a lot to him, especially because he didn’t always get along with the writers. But other than that he was not so engaged with baseball. And in some ways baseball wasn’t that interested in him. Maybe it took some time for people to fully recognize and appreciate his significance and his importance.
It’s so hard to understand what he faced every day. Not just the death threats in Cincinnati or Ben Chapman screaming horrible things at him from the Philadelphia bench. We hear these stories and say, ‘Wow. That’s horrible.’ But just the everyday indignities on top of the death threats and the racist comments hurled at him from the stands. He had to put up with so much.
HOF: Was the Jackie Robinson project your idea?
HOF: When my dad made the BASEBALL series in 1994, Rachel Robinson [Jackie’s widow] gave him an interview at that time. She was happy with the film and came back to my dad a few years later and said, ‘I’d love for you to make the definitive Jackie Robinson biography.’ He said, ‘I’d love to but I have six other projects planned already and I don’t have time. You should go find someone else to do it because I can’t do this right now. Don’t wait for me.’ After talking to other people, she came back again and said, ‘I want you to do it.’ After a number of years saying, ‘I can’t,’ he finally said I have to do this. What a great project. Rachel Robinson, who we’ve interviewed three times for this film, was really extraordinary.
HOF: Was that your first trip to Cooperstown?
SB: No, but it was my first time in quite a while. I had been with my dad a few times in the early ‘90s around the production and release of the BASEBALL documentary. But I don’t think I’ve been there in the interim.
HOF: Are you a baseball fan?
SB: I am. I grew up a Red Sox fan in New England. My dad had become a Red Sox fan while he was in college in Massachusetts, so I definitely grew up with that in my blood. Though I will admit that with two young kids I have very little time to watch baseball. I don’t track it nearly as closely as I once did, but more out of lack of time than anything else.
HOF: Finally, what do you hope the viewer of the Robinson film will come away with?
SB: I hope that people come away with a more three-dimensional sense of Jackie Robinson. We have come to think of him as this heroic statue but he’s a little bit frozen in that way. I hope that this can fill in who he was, what his life was about, what mattered to him, and understand him and maybe relate to him better than just this hero up on a pedestal. Not that he’s not a hero and doesn’t deserve to be on a pedestal – he absolutely does – but I think that we learn more and understand more when we have the ability to examine his whole life.
Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum