The newest Ken Burns documentary is a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson, premiering tomorrow night on PBS. Despite his inclusion in Burns’s Baseball, Robinson’s impact breaking the color barrier in American professional sports extends even beyond the scope of what that eleven-part epic can accomplish.
While much of April belongs to Opening Week festivities, and all the pomp and circumstance that attends the return to Major League ballparks all around the country, we’ll also soon be reminded of the anniversary of Robinson’s historic debut at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Since 2004, April 15 has been celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day throughout baseball, and it’s the only time that Robinson’s number 42 can be worn by an MLB player. And, in fact, every player will be wearing 42. Sure, it might be confusing if you’re keeping score, but the significance far outweighs any statistical record-keeping challenges.
Last week, Buster Olney spoke at length with Ken Burns on the Baseball Tonight podcast. The filmmaker talks about the role Robinson’s widow Rachel had in bringing this film to fruition.
Burns also speaks of the relationship Robinson had with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a topic we expect to be featured in the new documentary. A Cut4 feature on MLB.com, posted earlier this year to celebrate MLK day, discusses this at some length. One of my favorite descriptions of Robinson is quoted here: King describes him as “… a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
It’s not just the one day each year that all players honor Jackie Robinson’s legacy. It’s the one day each year that the Giants fan in me buries the vehement rival-bashing and salutes a player who only ever wore Dodger Blue.