Burning memories of Jackie Robinson

“A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives”

-Jackie Robinson

So I went to this Jackie Robinson documentary preview the other night.

You know Jackie Robinson, don’t you?  If you’ve ever dabbled in competitive sports, read this occasionally, sport-related website and/or are a human being with a conscience, then you better damn well know who Jackie Robinson is.

He’s the player who broke baseball’s color barrier.  He was the first black man to play in the major leagues, acceptably.  He’s the reason there’s a big number 42 on the outfield wall of every ballpark in the majors.  He’s the face, body and purpose of racial integration in professional sports.

He’s Jackie Robinson.  He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He kinda stole home a few times, both literally and figuratively.

Ken Burns has released a documentary on the man.  It will be worth watching.  And it will air on a PBS station soon near you.  Pay attention to details.

Jackie and me

I had the pleasure of seeing a sneak preview of Mr. Burns’ documentary.

An hour later I was called in to work.

While I watched snippets of the film with a select few, an historic building blocks away from where I work was burning down to the ground.

The building that struck fire was an Ybor City mainstay.  It didn’t actually crumble.  Local firefighters, along with the help of some crafty, old school architecture, did their best to maintain the damage.

The building that set fire housed a club called the Amphitheatre.  Fortunately, it was closed and vacant for the evening.

Over the years, I’ve known several friends that have worked there.  It wasn’t a black club.  It wasn’t a white club.  The burning of this building was not racially motivated.  The fire that ignited within had nothing to do with our past.  By all initial accounts, the fire was as accident.

Yet I couldn’t help but tie some connection between the Burns film I had just watched and the building I had just watched burn.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago that racially fired conversation consumed our nation.

It still does.  Fortunately, it didn’t tonight.

I don’t mean to turn our attention away from a documentary that you should watch.  The irony of tonight’s fire, however, could not be ignored.

A building burned.  Passersby looked on.  Those of generations past mention Jackie Robinson as the first black man to again, literally and figuratively, play ball.  He was a rock solid foundation of our nation’s past.  Not acknowledging this does us all a great injustice.

Despite a raging fire, a building that stood even before Jackie hit the majors still stands.

It turns out history may teach us something after all.

Ybor City Amphitheatre fire

After smelling the smoke, and watching firefighters black and white, male and female, do their jobs to keep things intact, I couldn’t help but be reminded that this was one of those full days, the kind that make you think, the kind that make you remember you’re alive for a reason, the reasons that shake you into thinking that what’s going down in the present is inextricably linked to our past, regardless of intent, perhaps just from circumstance.

Jackie Robinson’s brother finished second to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Games in front of a not so adoring Adolf Hitler.  Ken Burns’ documentary will remind you that the elder Robinson then came home to find gainful employment sweeping the streets.  It was the only work he could find.

He did so proudly in his Olympic jacket.

His far more famous brother endured far more than you or I will ever comprehend.  These are more stories you’ll learn about in the documentary.

Things have changed a lot since the days of Jackie Robinson.  Some things remain the same.

These lessons, both past and present, are not lost upon me.  For I, am aware.

22 thoughts on “Burning memories of Jackie Robinson

  1. Wow. I think this is one of my very favorite posts (and thats saying something!). Amazing. Beautifully done SC. You make this Mom so very proud … and in so many ways. Powerfully written. Its a home run for sure.

  2. Look at MoS sneaking in a baseball metaphor.

    Thanks for the doc invite and thanks for dinner after. Sorry I had to jet but at least we got a good post out of the deal, right?

    And some good damn mussels too.

  3. Another well written column, Chris. I will watch the Ken Burns documentary, because it will be great. His “Baseball” documentary series was terrific, and holds up on repeated viewings. Possibly the best thing that he did for that film was talking to Buck O’Neill. Listening to Buck talk about how poorly he and his Negro League colleagues were treated and cheated, but saying it with wistfully and with no bitterness endeared me to him and the movie. Just a charming, thoughtful man.

    Several years later I got to meet Buck O’Neill on Federal Street outside of PNC Park. He was at an autograph table, and I got an amazing photo of him with my wife, where he tossed Janette’s long locks over his nearly bald head and they both were breaking up laughing.

    His story, and his grace and attitude are inspiring. If you have the chance, read “The Soul of Baseball”, by Joe Posnanski. It’s the story of Buck touring the country in his last years. It includes his graceful response to the horrible HOF snub (extra election for 15 Negro League players, executives, etc., somehow not him). He gave the induction speech for the others, just to tell the stories, even though he was very disappointed. He wasn’t a great player, but he was a great man.

  4. Brother Bill….

    Thanks as always for the kind words and support.

    I actually haven’t seen Burns’ baseball doc but it’s on my wish list for sure.

    And I may just check out that O’Neill book as well. Thanks for the heads up.

    There were about 100 or so people at this private screening of the Jackie preview. Some of those in attendance included family members of those who played in the Negro leagues. They had a little Q&A after the film. Some spoke of their memories of Jackie and of even meeting him.

    Ya’ know, sometimes we talk about this stuff like it was ages ago but it really wasn’t.

    Another thing the video expounds upon is the different stances during the civil rights movement within the black community. Robinson openly spoke out against both Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. As we already know, Robinson was far more conservative in his approach to civil rights. That’s the main reason he was chosen as the man to break the barrier.

    Either way, I’ll be glued to the set for the doc this week. Really looking forward to it.

  5. That is true about Jackie Robinson. His stance on the racial issues was more similar to Martin Luther King’s than it was to Malcolm X’s.
    And yes, it was a while ago, but certainly not ancient history. I realized that when I saw Rachel Robinson on TV at that game in Cuba.

  6. Moments of significance in the realms sports’ history here in North America …. Jackie Robinson and it leading to the full integration of baseball. Jack Johnson winning the world heavyweight title in boxing and being the first African American do to so. Johnson was Muhamad Ali ( Cassius Clay) before there was an Ali , in the ring, in spite if the idiotic insistence of boxing historians without a frigging clue. Then there were Jesse Owens (track and field 36 Berlin Olympics) and Joe Louis Barrow ( no one has come close to matching the tenure his reign much less the title defenses made ) , perhaps the greatest of all the heavyweight title holders in history. Yet at the end of the day , their contributions to the world of sports and social awareness, have never been truly appreciated.

    Let me pose this question to you , baseball for the history which encapsulates the sport , what has it really done over the past two decades to really make itself an integral part of this nation’s fabric ? This is a sport , which still can’t get of its own way , in terms of lack of leadership within its hierarchy, much less the fact , it cannot do what is morally right and it being of benefit to the fans.

    Bud Selig and the league hierarchy remain a goddamn joke and the sport itself , remains a self-deprecating debacle.

    Documentaries about Jackie Robinson in this day and age what is it really meant to signify ? Really giving us insight into a bygone age or just reminding us all in reality , the so called social advancements are nothing more than a myth ? Oh look a black man playing baseball in the forties , while his own race was being treated like fecal matter and the men of color who fought the nation during WWII could not be treated as an equal , much less the fact the US military didn’t become fully integrated for almost a decade after the Second World War had ended. How quaint ? LOL,LOL !!


  7. So much praise for Hank Aaron , but yet the night he broke the career home run record , his family and the player himself was the target of some of the most vile and hate filled racial epithets imaginable . It’s only what history chooses to record , but also what it chooses to leave out in the annals (books) , also
    .


  8. Let’s hear it for Tyler Summitt , son of legendary Vols’ basketball coach Pat Summitt. Inappropriate behavior with several females on the staff of the LSU program and rather than waiting to be fired, he resigns. . Rick Pitino while married , has sex with the estranged wife of one of his coaching assistants and then claims she lured him , while also claiming she also tried to extort money to keep their relationship quiet. LOL,LOL !!! WTF !

  9. My memory of Jackie as I grew up in Queens: In baseball, he made the Dodgers relevant. Black and white neighborhood kids wanted to run like him, hold their bats high at the plate, and learn to hook slide while stealing home. Our parents wanted us to realize the significance of post war America where all men were eligible to play in the big leagues if they were good enough. Jackie was rookie of the year and league MVP two of his first three years. You-Tube him returning punts in college and you’ll see he could’ve played in the NFL as well. The day Kentucky bred Pee Wee Reese stood at second base with his arm around Jackie was the beginning of true integration on the ball fields and streets of America. Nice piece, Chris.

  10. Bill…

    There are few good scenes with, and about, Rachel in the doc that you’re gonna love.

    I don’t wanna spoil ’em but look out for ’em.

  11. I don’t know that baseball’s done much in the last two decades, Al. And if they’ve done stuff for “the community,” they certainly didn’t do their best to publicize it or let us know.

    Keep in mind, this was a sport that’s been mired in a drug controversy over that very same time.

    And re: Summit and Pitino, I guess coaching makes for strange bedfellows.

  12. Thanks, Jim.

    We all knew Jackie was a great athlete but I didn’t know he lettered in FOUR sports at UCLA: baseball, basketball, football and track.

    And I forget whether it was in Cincy or Chicago, Chicago I think, that drew max capacity and then some the first time Jackie came to town.

    Be sure to watch this thing, man. Burns uncovered some great old film.

  13. Over the last two decades under Bud Selig and now with his successor Rob Manfred , instead of there being changes which have been of benefit to the game , it finds itself still mired in controversy and a real lack of leadership. The MLB hierarchy can’t even market the game so it has a broad-based appeal globally.

    Beyond the steroid issue , baseball isn’t even on the same page as the international governing body which runs the sport. If that isn’t a damning indictment, then what is ? MLB is seeking reinstatement to the Summer Olympics and they can’t even reach an accord with member countries within the International Baseball Federation. Like I said , what use has Bud Selig been or Rob Manfred for that matter ?

    The World Baseball Classic elicit about as much excitement as a Animal Planet program detailing the mating habits of pachyderms (elephants) .

    It must’ve been a real clutch experience for the females Tyler Summit chose to encounter at and with the LSU Tigers. His shooting ratio ( pun intended) and that of the team (women’s) at LSU , had better have been great. LOL,LOL,LOL !!!

  14. Oh My, Triple SC…. This is an amazing post!! WOW! I agree with your Mom, but will even do better – I say your post is a sweet spot grand slam. We’ve talked about racism before; how deplorable it is and how things have changed and how things unfortunately remain the same. My son has experienced racism remarks from classmates. We have watched the movie 42 together several times, among other movies or documentaries, so he knows the adversities others have endured and how they were able to overcome these adversities. What is also so remarkable is that my 12 year old son has been able to hear about Jackie Robinson first hand from his own grandfather.

    My father in law lived in Brooklyn and went to many, many Dodgers games growing up and has bounced balls off the walls of Ebbets Field. We love listening to how his favorite players were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. Brooklyn had areas for all different races or ethnicity and you never crossed into a neighborhood that you didn’t “belong”. There was an Italian area, Irish area, etc. Dad (Irish) said that since he was darker skinned, he could visit some Italian friends without problems – and how the Italian Moms made him eat, eat, eat! When Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers, kids were wanting to play like Jackie – no matter their color of skin and things began to change in the neighborhoods. Dad was even at a game when Jackie Robinson received a standing ovation! Dad owned 3 shoe boxes full of baseball cards (later to be given away to other boys in the neighborhood by his mom when Dad left for the Navy)!! When the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles, Dad was so broken hearted that he never watched baseball again until maybe 10 years ago and that was only at my house when I had a game on during his visit. I have a hard enough time going from November to March without baseball; I can’t even imagine boycotting baseball since 1957.

    You did a fabulous job on this post and my son and I will be on the look out for Ken Burns documentary.
    Dee Dee

  15. With the deaths of Sean Taylor and now Will Smith of the New Orleans Saints don’t you think it’s time the NFL actually take a stance on the issue of gun violence rather than issue rather inane pragmatic statements filled with euphemisms or is it business as usual with a league whose main priority seems to be about making money ?

    It’s bad enough when you have the @sshole players of the NBA led by that prick LeBron James trying to show solidarity against gun violence by wearing a hoodie and bowing their heads to achieve what might I ask ? Today’s athletes on their best day, couldn’t address an issue of social relevance if they were handed pen and paper and asked to write a dissertation. The PSA (public service announcement ) during the NBA All Star Game was a goddamn joke .

  16. If schedule properly, Al, and I don’t necessarily know what the answer to that is, I think things like the World Baseball Classic could draw.

    But apparently those in charge do not have a clue.

  17. Thanks for the kind words as always, Dee That really is an interesting time in our history.

    We talk about the Browns and Colts picking up and moving but there may not have been a move as devastating to an entire culture as the Dodgers moving to L.A.

  18. NFL take a stand on gun violence, Al?

    Well I guess that all depends.

    How many NFL owners do you think are members of the NRA?

    Therein may lie your answer.

  19. Hope I didn’t miss the documentary…I’ll be searching the Tivo when I get home…

    Jackie was the classiest of classy…Too bad so many claim to revere the man, wear his jersey and tout his legacy, then defile it by eschewing his Christian values and behavior.

  20. I plan on watching it this Sunday… along with that damn 30 for 30 about Shaq leaving Orlando.

    Why do they have to bring up that old shit.

    Everybody huuuuuuuuuuuuuuurts….. sometiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimes.

  21. Chris, I have just finished watching the Robinson documentary by Ken Burns. Magnificent. Flat out fantastic. Rachel Robinson is a national treasure. More than a few tears from this reporter as I re-lived my 25 year relationship with a truly great American icon!

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