Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History

By Jules Tygiel | Go to book overview

ELEVEN

Ken Burns Meets Jackie Robinson

There is no denying the accomplishments of Ken Burns's Baseball. The eighteen-and-a-half-hour documentary created an unprecedented oral and visual history of the game and brought it before a broad audience of both devout fans and the uninitiated. Throughout the week that the series aired, I was repeatedly approached by people—many of whom had no previous interest in baseball—who were religiously and enthusiastically viewing the spectacle. Yet, while recognizing Burns's achievement, I was deeply disturbed by many aspects of the series. To demonstrate my qualms, I will analyze Burns's treatment of the subject that I know best: the saga of Jackie Robinson and the racial integration of baseball. The decision to focus on Burns's depiction of Jackie Robinson, reflects not only my own area of expertise, but the importance of Robinson and racial equality to the entire Baseball series. Burns repeatedly stated that the issue of race was the central theme of his work and the “Sixth Inning” episode was the pivotal juncture of his documentary. Certainly, here he would take great pains to ensure accuracy.

The segment begins with former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler's marvelous rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and recounts the familiar tale of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Although Burns adheres to the fundamental spirit of the story, he takes substantial liberties with its sequence, facts, and events. The saga begins in spring 1945 as Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey plans his historic breakthrough. The narrator, John Chancellor, describes a secret ballot wherein major league owners voted 15—1 against racial integration. But the discussion of this incident is problematical. While the owners' rejection of Rickey is a staple of the Robinson legend, there is controversy over whether a formal vote ever actually took place. If indeed it

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