“The Most Important Person in the History of Baseball”: Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson




Last Thursday WBAI broadcast the interview I did with filmmaker Ken Burns, whose new PBS documentary Jackie Robinson airs April 11-12. Burns talks with me about the myths that have grown around the legend of Jackie Robinson, and the whole process of filmmaking.

If you have any interest in baseball, film, or American history I think you’ll greatly enjoy listening to this interview with a great American documentarian.

Thanks to Mario Sanchez for helping to edit this radio piece.

Click on the grey triangle to listen.

9 thoughts on ““The Most Important Person in the History of Baseball”: Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson

  1. Hi Jack, I never listen to BAI in the afternoons and so I never hear you and you are so modest that you do not even mention that you are going to be on the air! *That was a very, very good interview!! *You really had it structured well and had good questions for him and it ended up being fascinating. I would like to learn how you did that–prepared for it, got in touch with him, decided what questions to ask, etc. It went so well. Was it a big editing job???? It is amazing that you got that interview with him. I would not have watched the documentary had I not heard this interview, but I will watch it now–tape it to watch.

    (I wonder if Burns will include any mention of Jackie’s brother Matthew. *The Times* a few years back had an article in the Sports section about him. Have you heard of him? He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and came in second with a silver metal when Jessie Owens won the gold. The thing is that Matthew was a janitor or something. Had no money, had no real professional training and had really old, worn shoes but couldn’t afford better ones. Had he had better shoes, he might have won. What happened to him afterward is also a fascinating and very sad story which again showed the social and human costs of Jim Crow. Wonder if Burns includes anything about this…I went to Wikipedia one time to read more and the entry has a much more rosy story about Matthew’s experience than the gritty one *The Times* featured. So i don’t think that Matthew’s story is very well known…or do you already know about this??)

    Anyway, excellent work!!!!


  2. Marilyn, Ken Burns does mention Jackie’s older brother Matthew, and his role at the 1936 Olympics, but doesn’t go into a lot of detail about it. He does, however, set the context of the family life very well. They were very poor, and the father left the family one day, just disappearing. Their mother somehow kept the rest of the family together, and Matthew and Jackie were both multi-talented athletes.

    • A few important points.

      Jackie Robinson’s father disappeared in the county that had about 90% of all reported racist lynchings in those days. Many, many Black people disappeared there.

      I still believe that the most important people in the history of baseball are the people in Haiti who actually made the baseballs. They got paid about $140 per year for working 6 days a week 14 hours per day on average. In the late 1990’s human rights groups, including the World Council of Churches, reported that theses people wrecked their hands and health at an early age and they had not had a raise since the days of Babe Ruth. Nobody could have done anything in baseball without those people and their most important work. After the news broke about this situation, Major League Baseball started using factories outside of Haiti in secret locations. Thanks to Bud Selig.

      • Thanks, Tom. Those are both very important points to remember. On another website, I ventured some other candidates for most important person in baseball. My #1 was Babe Ruth and my #2 was Curt Flood.

  3. Jack,

    It was weird and shocking to hear that “historian ” Ken Burns likes to say that sometimes 1+1=3

    Typical of how dumbed down some things get .

    It was sad to see his attitude of being schmaltzy as hell sometimes but loving to put in celebrity negative gossip about historical people.

    It was a shame that he put in his baseball series that Rachel does not remember Pee Wee Reese putting an arm around Robinson. That was not polite to do to Mrs Robinson That is disrespectful.

    She was very old when she said that. He took advantage of her senior moment memory and exploited it shamefully.

    Jackie Robinson wrote about that moment and how important it was in his autobiography. I do not think that Robinson ever lied about such things.

    Rachel was interviewed by Burns staff, long after Jackie Robinson was dead. I think she made a mistake and Burns ran with it all the gleeful way to the bank thanks to the controversy which gave him free publicity.

    Burns also says that there were no news reports about it in the white press. A big problem for any history lessons is that people look at things that happened a long time ago -but look with todays’ modern eyes. The white press almost never reported on Robinson in his first year, especially at first. He was ignored as much as possible. I find it impossible that the black press could have reported such an event in the horrors of violent all encompassing racism of the 1940’s USA.

    The incident has been mythologized in the fact that many people have reported it happening in several places on several different days. I have talked to old Brooklyn guys who said it happened in Brooklyn. That is wishful thinking . Some people also mistakenly said it happened in Philly because of the super racists drek from the stinking Philly players. A different white Dodger spoke up for Robinson against the Philly team.

    Burns “history ” often made me very uncomfortable, frustrated or angry.


    • Tom, Burns specifically claims that the Pee-Wee Reese story is not in Jackie’s autobiography, and that neither the white nor the Black press documented it at the time. If he was wrong about that, you should write to him.

      I think you should watch the series on April 11-12 and see what you think. What I saw was nothing but respect for the man and his wife and children. I don’t think his children would have allowed a disrespectful portrait of him or their mother to be aired.

      If the 1+1=3 comment sounded “dumbed down,” then that was my fault in the editing. That was Burns’s way of saying that he likes it when the sum is greater than the parts; I probably didn’t leave in enough context so that his meaning was clear.

      • page 64, of I Never Had It Made, by Jackie Robinson, An Autobiography, copyright 1995 by Rachel Robinson, Harper Collins Publishers, originally published New York, Putnam 1972

        I could send you a scan of the page.

        Robinson describes the game in Boston where it did happen.

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