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Jackie Robinson's Light Still Shines

By Mike Hastings

I thought I knew all about Jack Roosevelt Robinson.  Turns out I was wrong.

Ken Burns, the talented producer and director of historical documentaries like “When it was a Game” and “The Civil War,” took on the Dodgers’ great.  The special aired on PBS this week to co-inside with  Major League Baseball’s celebration of the Dodger great.  In a word the show was - enlightening.

I learned so much about the legend, and the man.

The legend - the first player to break baseball’s color barrier.  The first black league MVP.  The first black to play in a World Series. The first player to have his number retired - by the entire league!

The man - almost reverent.  Possessed the ability to turn the other cheek, amid the great racism he faced every day.

It turns out, there was so much more to the story.

The Burns film uses classic newsreels and interviews with former players, fans and historians, and in particular, his amazing wife Rachel to paint a much clearer picture of the man I thought I knew.

The film talks about his early years as an athlete.  He was a terrific football player.  He received many scholarship offers, but signed with UCLA as a running back.

As a college graduate, he was entitled to a commission in the military when World War II broke out, but was denied initially.  

Even in college and the military, he was denied the basic rights given to his white contemporaries.  But even then, he stood up.

Years before Rosa Parks, he refused to go to the back of the bus when ordered to do so, even though he was wearing his country’s uniform.  His refusal led to trouble for him, but he demanded equal treatment as a man, and a soldier.

He left the Army and began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues.  

When Branch Rickey was looking for the right man to end segregation in major league baseball, he could have chosen better known players like Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige.  But he saw something in Robinson, an inner strength that he knew was needed to pave this path.

Burns’ film told the commonly known story or Jackie’s silent dignity in the face of hatred, from fans and teammates alike.  Hate that was eventually overcome and replaced with respect.

But it also talked about Robinson’s transformation from the quiet man who just took it, to the outspoken man who began to speak out as the years went on.

As other black players like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe joined Robinson on the Dodgers, they got upset when Jackie would complain.  They were just happy to be there.  But Jackie stood up again - this time against being forced to stay in different hotels, and eat at different restaurants than white players.

Of course, because of Jackie, these things too changed.

I believe the best and most enlightening part of the Burns film centered on Robinson’s life after baseball.

I always believed that Robinson must have lived with great contentment for all he accomplished.  In reality, his story was very sad.

The film talks about his conflicts in the sixties, with civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who called Jackie an Uncle Tom for his passiveness and support of politician like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller.  

Jackie suffered the loss of his eldest son Jackie, Jr, who after years of battling drugs, finally was getting his life together, only to lose it in a car accident.

The years of stress and heart ailments caused by diabetes aged Jackie.  He looked much older when he left us at only 53.

He died of a heart attack in the arms of his beloved Rachel.  She said his last words were “I’m going to miss you.”   

Above all, Jackie’s was a love story.  A love of his wife, his children, the game of baseball, his country and his people.

What a man, what a story.  We mis you Jackie - though you’re gone, your light shines bright.