The long influence of Jackie Robinson, on and off the field

A new PBS documentary produced by Ken Burns examines the struggles Jackie Robinson faced in breaking baseball’s color barrier -- and his achievements as a player on the diamond and as a civil rights activist in later life. John Yang talks to Dusty Baker, manager of the Washington Nationals, for a personal take on Robinson’s enduring legacy both on and off the field.

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    Now: the legacy of one of baseball's greatest, Jackie Robinson, on and off the field.

    It's the focus of a new documentary that begins on PBS tonight.

    John Yang has our look.


    The four-hour program was produced by Ken Burns and airs over two nights, interesting tomorrow night. It's narrated by Keith David, with Jamie Foxx reading Jackie Robinson's words.

    It seeks to show a deeper and fuller view of Robinson's achievements and challenges.

    Here's a short excerpt about how Jackie was treated after Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey selected him to break the color barrier.

    We should warn you, though, that the documentary is explicit about the epithets and racist language that Robinson endured, and some of that is in this clip.

  • KEITH DAVID, Narrator:

    Robinson faced everything Rickey said he would. Pitchers threw at his head. More than once, runners sprinting towards first base spiked Robinson with their cleats, and a hard slide by Robinson wouldn't go unnoticed by opposing infielders.

    Before Brooklyn played Ben Chapman's Phillies in Philadelphia, Branch Rickey received a call from the president of the team. "Don't bring the nigger here," he said. "We're just not ready for that sort of thing yet."

  • MAN:

    And Rickey said, well, "He's a member in good standing of the National League, and if you don't want to play us, we will accept the forfeit of the game."

  • JAMIE FOXX, Actor:

    "You thought of Philadelphia as the city of brotherly love, but yet when you went to Philadelphia, you couldn't stay in the same hotel. You had to find your own accommodations. And then there was Ben Chapman and some of the other Phillies, who were vicious and uncalled for."


    During one game, Cubs shortstop Len Merullo kicks Jackie as they untangle themselves after a close play at second. As the Brooklyn bench should at Merullo, Jackie angrily picked himself up, but didn't strike back.


    The documentary lays out what Robinson went through as a player, as a leader, and, after his baseball career ended, as a civil rights figure.

    Let's get some personal perspective on this from Dusty Baker. He was a player for 19 years, notably with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. He's been a manager for two decades and is now manager of the Washington Nationals. He joins from his office at Nats Park.

    Mr. Baker, thanks for being with us.

    So much of the focus about Jackie Robinson is about that one year, the year he broke the color barrier, but I don't think a lot of people realize the influence he had on players long after his playing career had ended. Talk about the direct link between Jackie Robinson and you through Hank Aaron.

  • DUSTY BAKER, Manager, Washington Nationals:

    Well, actually, it started with my parents.

    And, you know, most — at that time, most African-American parents, if they were baseball fans, they were Dodger fans because of Jackie Robinson. So, you know, my dad used to tell me all the time, you know, what would Jackie do in that situation if I was fighting or something.

    And then I was fortunate enough to have played with Hank Aaron with the Atlanta Braves. And Hank told me he went to see Jackie when he was a youngster and how much influence he had on him. And, you know, I was close to Hank. I was with Hank, you know, most days from 19 to 25 years or 24 years old.

    And, you know, Hank — I got to meet most of the civic leaders of our time at that time. You know, Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, I got to meet all those through Hank. And Jackie Robinson meant a lot to me because of my dad and because of, you know, Hank Aaron. And my mom was an African studies teacher, so we knew all about Jackie Robinson.


    Do you think young African-American players today appreciate the legacy of Jackie Robinson?


    Probably not. I don't think it's the African-American players' fault, necessarily, of not appreciating Jackie Robinson. I don't think we have done a very good job of, you know, passing along history, not only of Jackie Robinson, but the fact of, you know, in America, it seems like that's what people like — spend the most — I mean, the least amount of time studying is history.

    So, you know, some of us have made a conscientious effort to try to pass along that history, because if we don't pass along that history, you know, it's going to die. I pass it on to my son. My son comes in my office in the weight room at the house and he sees, you know, different players. He saw — he told me, he said, "Dad, I didn't know Jackie played ball in Cuba."

    And I took my family to Cuba a few years ago, and so there was a lot that people don't know about Jackie. They don't know he went to the military. You know, there is a whole bunch of things. But I will tell you, he was — and I asked Jim Gilliam.

    One of the first questions I asked him, I said, why did he die and how did he die so young? And Jim Gilliam told me at that time that he thought that Jackie died of a broken heart. And I really didn't understand it, but the longer I live, you know, the more it's understandable.


    What do you think that Jackie Robinson would think of the situation today? You have got 8 percent of Major League Baseball players are African-American. You have a handful, a very — you're one of a very small number of African-American managers.

    You're the second winningest active manager, but still almost didn't have a job going into this season. What do you think of the state of diversity in baseball today?


    You know, when I first came into the game, I was on the Braves. We had, I think, a combination of, I don't know, eight to 10 African-Americans and Latin players when I first came into the game. And so it's definitely gotten worse. It hasn't gotten better.

    But, at the same time, you know, we have time to do something about it. And, you know, I have spoken to the commissioner. You know, he's very aware of it. You know, he doesn't like it. He told me that he's glad that I got a job, because, at the time, this would have been the first time in 27 years when there wasn't an African-American manager.

    And it seems like, you know, we have to do twice as good to accomplish the same thing. And, you know, the scrutiny of being one of the few black, African-American managers, you know, is tremendous. And sometimes you feel like you're carrying the weight of, you know, the whole race sometimes, personally on this side.

    But, on the other hand, that's what I feel that I was chosen, you know, for God to do, because, you know, here I am in the nation's capital, and here I am with this outstanding team, best team I have had to start with. And I feel that, you know, great things are ahead for us on the Nationals and hopefully us in America.


    Very good.

    Well, Dusty Baker, congratulations the fast start. Good luck the rest of the way, and thanks for being with us.


    All right, you're welcome.

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