Ebbets Field, opening day, 1913. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The new two-part PBS documentary from Ken Burns, “Jackie Robinson,” focuses on the star athlete’s civil rights activism. The introduction quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “Jackie Robinson was a sit-in-er before sit-ins. A freedom rider, before freedom rides.” President Barack Obama, also interviewed in the documentary says, “Jackie Robison laid the foundation for America to see its Black citizens as subjects and not just objects. It meant that there were six and seven and eight years old boys who suddenly thought a Black man was a hero.”
The documentary shows Jackie Robinson path from the Jim Crow South to California, where he became a college sports star but was also the victim of discrimination by other athletes, by the police and by residents. He was thrown in jail twice – once for singing a popular song on the street with a friend, and another time after a white man insulted him and his friends. He began practicing his own version of non-violent protest – moving down to the white area of a Pasadena movie theater from the segregated balcony and insisting on sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter until he was served. He was arrested at third time (and court-martialed) while serving in the U.S. Army when he refused to move to the back of a civilian bus. He was not even allowed to play on Fort Riley’s baseball team.
But it may be the words of Jackie Robinson himself, in archival footage, that show what the struggle was all about. In one scene, he quickly dispels the myth of celebrity privilege: “People have been saying that Jackie Robinson of all people in his country, you have less right to protest against what’s going on in this country than anybody that I know of. They said Jackie Robinson you have it made, and you ought not to be a part of this movement. And I say to you, whether you like it or not, there is not one negro, not one that I know in this country that has it made until every the most underprivileged negro in St. Augustine has it made.”
Ken Burns himself says, “Jackie Robinson is the most important figure in our nation’s most important game. He gave us our first lasting progress in civil rights since the Civil War…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.”
Untapped Cities readers will be especially pleased to not only see the archival photographs and film footage of the lost Ebbets field in Brooklyn but also other images of New York City. There is a barely recognizable Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn filled with car traffic, children playing baseball in the street, a downtown New York City far less crowded with skyscrapers, and tree-lined brownstone streets in Brooklyn. Those interviewed speak of how baseball influenced street life in Brooklyn “Every kid, no matter where he was in Brooklyn…baseball was ‘de rigeur,” says Alton Waldon. Myron Ulberg says, “To us, Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Dodgers was synonymous. One and the same thing.” But because they didn’t have enough money to go to the games, they would create a diamond in the street with chalk. “The Brooklyn of the 1940s was more a village than a borough…it was really idyllic,” says Ulhberg.
And of course, there was Ebbets Field which had stood in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn since 1913. You’ll see images of its marble rotunda with chandeliers made in the shape of bats and baseballs. The documentary covers Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey’s 1943 plan to integrate the Dodgers – as much for talent as it was to bring new audiences to the games.
Robinson’s agreement to ignore threats and abuse in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers gave him a clear path to fame – an athletic ascent without racial controversy. In fact, he was voted the second most popular American, losing only to Bing Crosby. But as co-director David McMahon says, “Robinson is often celebrated for stoically ‘turning the other cheek’ to the threats and insults he faced during his first season in the majors, and what’s lost is that this display of self-restraint went completely against his character…We wanted to create a more nuanced picture of a man who is often reduced to a two-dimensional myth.”
Watch Part I of “Jackie Robinson,” online, and Part II airs tonight on PBS.