Monday, April 18, 2016

Jackie Robinson - a film by Ken Burns

Sorry I haven't been to the movies lately. I've been working on my current novel in progress and dealing with my late father's estate, including the taxes.

I watched Ken Burns' excellent documentary about James Roosevelt Robinson - aka Jackie Robinson - the first half anyway on the night it was originally aired. Then I ended up recording the second part and only watched it this morning.

Let me say as usual Ken Burns delivers a quality product. His documentary is a portrait of a living, breathing human being, not some glorified image of a sports god.

One year older than Mr. Robinson's first born, I have vague memories of him as a player in the major leagues. My father was a huge sports fan and loved baseball. So every Saturday afternoon our big box with the little screen TV would be tuned to baseball games. When Jackie Robinson retired in 1956, I was seven years old.

Ken Burns tells the story of a man, intelligent, athletic powerhouse, who made his way in the world with few apologies.

A tremendous athlete he lettered in four sports in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He quit UCLA after the basketball season of his senior year. His older brother Mark Robinson had been on the US Team at the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler's Germany. Mark finished second in one race behind Jesse Owens, putting two African Americans on the podium at the Olympics for which Hitler declared they would be a celebration of Aryan superiority...uh huh.

Jackie had already broken his older brother's record for the long jump and eyed the Olympics as a goal. However, they were due to be held in 1940 when Europe was at war, thus they were cancelled.

Jackie enlisted in the military and qualified to become an officer, after asserting his rights as a qualified candidate, he was finally allowed to go to officers' candidate school. He passed the course and graduated as a Second Lieutenant.

He met a lovely young woman named Rachel in college. They were together off and on during the war and later during his career with the "Negro League" in baseball. In 1947, when Branch Rickey called Robinson to his office and signed him to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers he asked if Jackie had a girlfriend. On finding he did, Rickey advised him to marry her. So Jackie and Rachel were married and traveled the world of baseball together.

Of course in 1947 racial inequality was literally the law in many places. So the journey was fraught with perils which the young couple faced together. Branch Rickey said years later he knew Jackie Robinson would face many things as the first African-American in major league baseball. That's why he encouraged Robinson to marry Rachel.

Rickey had made a deal with his young player when he signed the shortstop. He told Robinson he must not react negatively to anything or protest any unjust call. Once the young man got in the game, he did as his manager asked. Rachel would often be at the games and hear some of the taunts and insults. When they were home alone, she helped him process through the indignities. Mr. Rickey was a smart guy.

After Robinson's phenomenal success, other major league teams began recruiting great players from the "Negro Leagues." When the other players came to the game, Mr. Rickey removed the restriction from Jackie's behavior during the games. From then on, Jackie spoke his mind like any other player could.

His health failing along with his abilities, Jackie retired in 1956. Mr. Rickey had been ousted from the Dodgers.  His successor was not as impressed with the older Jackie and often kept him on the bench. At the end of the 1956 season, Jackie was traded to another team. He had already accepted a position as a vice-president for Chock Full O' Nuts, a coffee company (precursor to Starbuck's) which had stores literally all over many cities in the northeast. So when he was ordered to report to the new team, he retired from baseball. He got a lot of negative press but weathered the criticism and moved on with his life.

Somehow he made friends with Richard Nixon. The vice-president under President Eisenhower, Nixon was an affable guy with Jackie. (That doesn't sound much like the Nixon I remember...) Jackie supported Nixon for president in 1960 against John F. Kennedy. The civil rights movement was growing. Dr. Martin Luther King was coming to prominence. In a peaceful demonstration somewhere in the deep south - I don't remember if it was Mississippi or Alabama - Dr. King was arrested and sentenced to a chain gang. Knowing what he would face under such conditions, Jackie Robinson asked Nixon to intervene. Nixon refused. Others asked Kennedy, who was not up on the civil rights issues at that time. He turned it over to his attorney brother, Robert Kennedy.  In his brother's name, Robert intervened and got Dr. King released.

Jackie seriously looked at his "friend" and choice for president. A lifelong Republican (it was the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator) he began to question his choices. By the time the 1968 election was held and Goldwater's people did all they could to belittle African-American delegates to their convention, going so far as to strip one long time delegate of his credentials and kicking him out - Jackie became a Democrat.

By then the Civil Rights movement had splintered into the historic group and a new, much more militant group which advocated violence. Malcolm X's assassination in February of 1965 had precipitated the more violent groups.

With the Vietnam War going on and many young men being drafted to fight, tensions grew ever higher. Riots broke out in many cities. Jackie Robinson, once seen as a major force for civil rights and equality, was relegated to the background, particularly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

Jackie's oldest son, Jack Jr., had long been suffering from depression and behavioral issues.  He decided to enlist in the Army and ended up in combat in Vietnam.  He was part of a patrol which was attacked. Two of his friends died beside him. He was wounded trying to drag one of them to safety.

He came back with serious issues and turned to drugs, heavy ones like heroin. He was eventually arrested and was caught with heroin and other drugs at the time. He was imprisoned. During his time, he became involved with a support group which helped people get off the drugs. When he was released, he went to work for the program, helping others to kick their habits.

He and his father reconciled. The family was doing well. The other two Robinson kids were both in college. Rachel had gotten her Masters degree in nursing. Jackie was still involved in civil rights and wrote a column for a NY newspaper. He was also instrumental in helping to form the Freedom Bank which grew to be a successful bank, which opened branches in NYC and beyond.

His oldest son was driving home one night, lost control of his car and crashed into a tree.  He died on impact. Drugs were not involved. It was 1971.

Jackie, Sr. was devastated by the loss of his firstborn. The whole family was. The young man had cleaned up his life and had a bright future, only to lose it all in an instant. Jackie spent a lot of time, as people do, saying "what if I..." as if he could have prevented the accident.

His health, which had been deteriorating for several years due to complications from diabetes and heart disease got even worse. On October 24, 1972, early in the morning, he ran downstairs to the kitchen where Rachel was starting to prepare breakfast, took her in his arms, said "I love you," and collapsed. He was dead by the time help arrived. He was only 53 years old but looked much older.

He had an amazing baseball career, even to the end, he stole home in the last game he ever played. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He led the way not only for African-Americans to play professional sports, but also Latinos and Asians.

Imagine how lackluster our professional team sports of Baseball, Basketball, and Football would be with only Caucasian players.

Jackie Robinson was much more than a sports hero, he was a good and honest man. He was a tireless worker for equality, even when he was kept in the background as the times changed. He instilled his work ethic in his children and influenced other children by his example.

You know there is a favorite poem of mine "To an Athlete Dying Young" which speaks of an athlete dying while he still had his abilities so he would be remembered at the top of his game with his youthful body which would never age.

Jackie Robinson's life made a mockery of the poem. He was a talented athlete and a good human being, complete with flaws, like we all have.

Thank you, Ken Burns, for bringing this remarkable man back to life.

My favorite bit in the movie? They showed clips of modern teams with all the players wearing number 42, Jackie's number, retired from active play but celebrated once a year when every major league team and every player wears number 42.

Thank you, Mr. Robinson.

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