Jackie Robinson: A 'great American,' a complicated man

Story highlights

  • "Jackie Robinson," a sweeping documentary about the baseball star, airs Monday and Tuesday
  • The film shows echoes between Robinson's life and events of the present

(CNN)The story of Jackie Robinson isn't just the story of a pioneering baseball player.

It's also, says Ken Burns, a story that says much about race and America -- as well as the complicated man at its center.
    Robinson is the subject of "Jackie Robinson," a documentary from celebrated filmmaker Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon. It airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS.
    Robinson's life paralleled, and sometimes intersected with, events in the life of the country. He was born in the Jim Crow South, the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of a slave. He grew up in California, the state to which so many would migrate in the coming decades.
    He served in the military -- and fought its discrimination. He played in New York in the 1950s when it was "the capital of baseball."
    He was a Republican who attended the 1964 GOP convention but then supported Democrats as the political parties' makeup changed. He struggled with the social tumult of the 1960s, a conflict poignantly reflected in his relationship with his son, a Vietnam War veteran who overcame a drug problem only to die in a car accident. He had a rich and devoted marriage to his wife, Rachel, his partner and sounding board.
    In other words, there's a much bigger picture than the one you'll find on a baseball card.
    "This is a multigenerational portrait of an African-American family," Burns said.
    He added, "In some ways, knowing the full, complex picture of Jackie gives you a greater perspective on what's going on today, from Trayvon Martin and Ferguson to the presidency and even the rollback of some of the essential liberties given to African-Americans in the mid-'60s that now seem to be in jeopardy."

    Fire and competition

    There are any number of stories in "Jackie Robinson" that echo events of our time.
    For example, the image of Robinson entering the major leagues is of a man who kept his temper in check, engaging in the "Christ-like gesture of turning the other cheek," in Burns' words. Certainly, he was encouraged to do so by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed him, and Robinson did largely channel his aggression into his play.
    But there was a great deal of anger underneath.
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    In one instance, as an officer stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, during World War II, Robinson was told to go to the back of a desegregated Army bus. He refused, the driver called the MPs, and Robinson was taken into custody. He was later booked on some trumped-up charges (though most were eventually dismissed) and court-martialed. He was acquitted, but the event left its mark.
    Moreover, as a black ballplayer, he was sometimes unfavorably compared with Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, an easygoing sort praised by the press as much as the fiery Robinson was criticized. Robinson was accused of being a rabble-rouser and of insolence -- terms that attempted to define him as an "angry black man."
    "I think if you understand the more complicated person -- the sort of driven, competitive, impatient person who was asked to (break the color line) -- you have an even greater appreciation of what it must have been like to withhold his response," Burns said.

    A love story

    The documentary also puts Robinson's marriage to Rachel at the center. Rachel Robinson, now 93, is revelatory: a sharp, vibrant presence and guide.
    "A really telling moment is when there's the discussion in the first episode about how smart he was in picking Rachel. And I think it's really true, that (if) there's no Rachel, then there's no Jackie," Burns said.
    Rachel Robinson wasn't just an "adoring wife," Burns observes. She sent back an engagement ring when she was unhappy with his behavior. She had her own job, as a nurse, and insisted that her husband stay active after his playing career ended.
    In their dynamic, there are parallels with another couple Burns interviewed for the film: Barack and Michelle Obama.
    "There's the President and first lady, another couple hurtling through time and space -- seemingly a different time and space -- but experiencing the same thing," Burns said. "As the President said, it's really good to go home when people are giving you a lot of grief, not based on substance but on the color of the skin, and have somebody who's got your back."

    Legacy of a 'great American'

    Robinson died in 1972. He was 53 years old.
    In the decades since, his legacy has been secured. Every April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day to honor the Hall of Famer. Every MLB team has retired No. 42, Robinson's uniform number. The Jackie Robinson Foundation -- founded by Rachel -- continues to award college scholarships and provide support services for worthy applicants. The movie "42" brought the story of Robinson's life to a wide audience. A Jackie Robinson Museum remains in the works.
    But for all that, "Jackie Robinson" still finds new stories to tell.
    After all, Robinson isn't just "the most important person in the history of baseball," Burns said.
    He was, the documentarian added, "one of the great Americans of all time."