A TV Review by Tim Riley



April 15th is a milestone every year as the deadline for filing of tax returns. But April 15, 1947 is one of the most historically unforgettable dates of the post-World War II era, right up there with the moon landing and the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

Baseball fans immediately recognize that this date in 1947 marks the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on Opening Day. Now that those who enjoy the nation’s pastime have been relegated to reruns of vintage games as this year’s opening day has come and gone with stadiums around the country sitting idle, PBS has resurrected its two-part “Jackie Robinson” documentary.

For a limited time, PBS has made the Ken Burns documentary available for streaming to commemorate the celebration of the first African-American to play at the major league level. Part 1 of “Jackie Robinson” is devoted to his early life and baseball career, focused on the significance of the first player in the Negro Leagues to get drafted into the majors by the visionary Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers.

Though born to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, Jack Roosevelt Robinson (his middle name is in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt) was raised in Pasadena, California where his athletic ability served him well in school.Robinson proved to be an all-around athlete and film clips of his football career demonstrate his talent for running the ball. At UCLA, he was the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: football, baseball, basketball and track.

That he was good at football caught the attention of the media and writer George Will narrated the Los Angeles Times article that noted Robinson “carried the football as though he was carrying a watermelon running from its owner who had a shotgun.”Before he could pursue a professional career in sports, Robinson was drafted into a segregated unit of the Army during World War II. Way ahead of Rosa Parks, Robinson once refused the order of a civilian driver to move to the back of a military bus.

The military police that responded were disrespectful and Robinson refused to back down, which then lead to his arrest on the charge of insubordination. Taking an aggressive posture with an officer reflected his strong sense of social justice. Fortunately, Robinson was found not guilty during a court martial and then penned a sharply-worded to the Adjutant General expressing his disgust with how the Army treated him and asking to be retired from the military. An honorable discharge was granted.

Robinson’s baseball career got launched when he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the teams in the Negro Leagues, where he drew the attention of Branch Rickey who was scouting for talent to add to the Dodgers’ roster.Interviewed for the documentary, the legendary Buck O’Neil, who played most of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs, revealed that Robinson hated the Negro Leagues because they were poorly financed and operated in a hectic, disorganized fashion.

The key to Rickey drafting Robinson into the Dodger farm team in Montreal was to convince the proud ballplayer that he would have to hold his temper in check and not respond to the vicious taunts, racial epithets and worse while not retaliating. Racial discrimination against Robinson was so pervasive that there were teams in Southern cities in the minor leagues that refused to play if Robinson was on the field. One city cancelled a game claiming the lights didn’t work, and this was for a day game.

Robinson’s widow, Rachel, playing a prominent role in the documentary, observes that her husband felt the pressure to succeed on the field to achieve social progress because “he felt the weight of black people on his shoulders.”Animosity to a black player was no less virulent when Robinson made his entry on to the majestic grounds of Ebbets Field and even some Dodger teammates like Dixie Walker asked to be traded rather than play with a man of color.The second part of “Jackie Robinson,” though it includes film clip highlights of his playing days in Brooklyn, incorporates a look at Robinson’s life after baseball when he wrote a newspaper column and assumed a more assertive stance as a civil rights activist.

Robinson entered the business world as the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation, the Chock full o’ Nuts company that originated from a chain of New York coffee shops.Not affiliated with any political party, Robinson was nonetheless involved and surprised many by actively supporting Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign after being unimpressed by his opponent.

Both history buffs and baseball lovers should enjoy “Jackie Robinson” for the great footage of great moments like stealing home plate in the 1955 World Series and public speaking for civil rights. Hurry to catch this on the PBS website before you have to search elsewhere.