Star documentary producer Ken Burns’s latest PBS show this week was a two-parter hailing Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), one of history’s great African American heroes -- period.
Years before the civil rights movement, Robinson famously broke the color line not only in baseball but all major league athletics, since professional football, basketball and hockey remained all-white years after his Brooklyn Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947. All MLB teams annually honor him by wearing his number 42 on that date.
Before addressing the main theme here, a Dodgers fan of that era would like to list some facts: Named the first Rookie of the Year in 1947. In 1949 the National League’s Most Valuable Player ranking #1 in both batting average (.342) and stolen bases (37), and #2 in hits (203) and runs batted in (124). All-Star in six of his 10 seasons. In the top 1 percent of career batting averages at .311. The league’s leading second basemen in turning double plays four years running and in three of those years also the leader in fielding accuracy.
In other words this was one fabulous athlete, not to mention he was the first man to letter in four varsity sports at U.C.L.A. (adding basketball, football and track to baseball). He had to be superior to survive vicious racism and threats hurled at him in the early phase with the Dodgers, as Burns’ telecast and the fine 2013 movie “42” depict.
Both the TV and film treatments portray the deep Christianity of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president who took the big chance of hiring Robinson from double motives of racial justice and baseball prosperity. In the movie Harrison Ford, impersonating Rickey, quips to an advisor worried about backlash over a black ballplayer: “I’m a Methodist. Jackie’s a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”
The movie said little about Robinson’s own religion and Burns provided nothing.