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Ken Burns Q&A: Telling Jackie Robinson story 'in the complicated way'

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Burns: Robinson most important person in baseball history (2:25)

Filmmaker Ken Burns joins SportsCenter to discuss Jackie Robinson's importance to the game of baseball and how his widow Rachel Robinson has carried on his legacy. (2:25)

LOS ANGELES – A theme that runs throughout the new "Jackie Robinson" documentary, set to air on PBS next week, is that a monumental accomplishment often has a partner to inspire it.

For Jackie Robinson there was his wife Rachel Robinson, with the significance of that partnership crystalized by an on-camera appearance from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama that managed to drive home the point with a simple look from the president.

For documentarian Ken Burns, the partners he made sure to credit for his work, including "Jackie Robinson," were co-directors and co-producers Sarah Burns and David McMahon, his daughter and son-in-law.

Ken Burns spoke with ESPN.com recently, in advance of another of his works that deals with baseball, a sport he believes has no equal. Burns talks about finding parts of the Robinson story not yet told, his admiration for Rachel Robinson, and whether he plans on ever using baseball again as a theme of his work.

When you were working on the "Baseball" documentary series in the 1990s, did you know immediately that you had a wealth of information that would one day lend itself to a separate Jackie Robinson documentary?

Burns: No, not at all. In fact, the opposite was true. We knew we had a wealth of information and we thought we had put it in our film. In fact, Jackie Robinson appears in all but one of the nine episodes of the "Baseball" series, in 18½ hours. He was sort of the moral center of it.

Obviously we considered it baseball's finest moment when he arrived. We made note of his birth and his growing up, his courtship of Rachel, his college athletics and his Negro League experience, and all of that. And there was a little bit of his post-baseball experience.

It was only after that that Rachel, his widow, who came to me and said there should be a standalone, and I said, "Yes, you're right Rachel, and I'm very busy with these other projects, but maybe when we get done there will be a moment when we can do it." Sarah Burns, David McMahon and I had just finished a film on the Central Park Five, the story of the Central Park jogger case, dealing with a lot of the racial issues that Jackie inevitably brings up. So the three of us segued to that and they are the equal co-producers and co-directors on this.

We were able to do a deeper dive and find out a good deal of the things we assumed were sort of mythological, or sentimental, or didn't reflect the reality of the situation that the real story of Jackie is much more complicated and therefore much more interesting. It gave him dimension. Mythology sort of softens the edges.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Pee Wee Reese throwing his arm around Jackie in protection and signaling to the racists in Cincinnati, who were hurling abuse on him at Crosley Field, when the Dodgers went there in '47, well, it didn't take place. It's not in Jackie's autobiography, it's not in the white press and it's not in the black press, who would have covered it with 10 related stories, you know? And Rachel herself admitted that she did not want them to build a statue outside of Great American Ball Park that immortalized something that didn't happen.

People that know baseball know as well as anyone that you don't leave your position at shortstop to walk across the field at first base. Stories are always postulated that they're at second base. Well, he doesn't play second base until his second year. I think somewhere along the line, after they have been teammates for a few years, they put their arms around each other as players often do after a good play, or just telling a joke, or whatever it is, and that migrated back in time to represent (what happened). And I think it's white people, no pun intended, wanting to have some skin in the game, wanting to feel that they were doing the right thing.

That, and a thousand other things, this film, I think, helps to reveal that the real stuff is much more interesting.

The idea that this is only born in the mind of Branch Rickey, it was his moral compass that this, and that he only had one player, Jackie Robinson in mind, when in point of fact, the African-American press, and the left-wing press, including the Communist Daily Worker, had been pushing for this for years. The progressive left-leaning Republican mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, had been pushing it. There were commissions investigating baseball's discriminatory hiring practices, and that Branch Rickey intended to bring up a handful of black players and probably would have brought up Marvin Williams or Sam Jethroe, or someone else before Jackie.

But when all of these events started to squeeze in on the moment he wanted to dominate, suddenly Jackie was before them. Wendell Smith, African-American reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, had seen the fraudulent tryout the Red Sox had given (Robinson) in '45 and he stood out there. He went "Right!" He remembered Jackie as that football player, basketball player (at UCLA) so all of a sudden, things happened. So we just wanted to tell the story, not in the superficial way, but in the complicated way.

Because the Jackie Robinson story is material that is well-mined, did that ever give you pause to present your own take on the subject, and were you surprised you could still find new stories to tell?

Burns: No, not at all. This is what we do and what we have always done. When we made our Civil War series, it was just presumed that African-Americans were passive bystanders to that struggle and not the active, dedicated, self-sacrificing soldiers in an intensely personal drama of self-liberation, one of the best stories I know.

I think we're always realizing the more we knock on the door and say, "Did that really happen? Can we find the photograph? Where is the evidence there?" And the way modern culture, with its conventional wisdom, for children's books and other things, and I think the general public sort of is at that mentality, it compresses something and just says, "Oh, yes." Or kids that write a book report are going to say, "Pee Wee Reese threw his arm around him," and they will promote nice things. And there really is nothing wrong with that fellowship, other than the fact that it didn't happen, and it becomes important for us, at some level, to tell a more complicated story. And I think he is even more impressive. Revisionism is a pendulum swinging another way and finding out the dirt on Jackie Robinson. On the contrary, his only makes him, and his accomplishments, even that much more remarkable ... I think.

Your work reveals you to be a historian as well as somebody who has a profound respect for baseball. Are those two subjects more intertwined than people realize?

Burns: First of all, baseball is the greatest game that has ever been invented. You don't need an amateur historian -- I'm a filmmaker, I tell stories, but the word "history" is mostly made up of the word "story," so I have a kinship with history. That's what I chose to do is focus on American history. But there is no greater game than baseball, and just to point it in one direction, ask a football fan, a rabid football fan, how many yards Walter Payton has. They can't tell you. But you can ask a casual fan what 56 means in 1941 and they know that's the number of consecutive games Joe DiMaggio hit in. Or .406 -- that's what Ted Williams hit. A .300 hitter means the same thing to my four daughters as does to me, as it did to my dad and my great-great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. There is nothing in American life that you can say that about. And it's a place in which, not only where those statistics matter: 715, 755. They also require stories to be told. Because if you look under 1919, it doesn't say "asterisk," it says the Cincinnati Red Stockings won the World Series. But there is a real interesting story I can tell you about what happened that year, right? Yes, the Cincinnati Red Stockings did win, but there's a much more interesting story and there are no asterisks.

So, baseball is just a perfect combination of the moment, the present moment, because you can't hit a baseball if you're thinking about Babe Ruth. You hit a baseball if you're thinking about hitting a baseball. And yet, a perfect sort of marriage of the moment, and of all time, and I love that. We said it in the original "Baseball" series that everybody stands at home plate and occupies space of all the ghosts that have ever been there before them.

It obviously was a monumental moment when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. So is the complete story of his life a happy one, especially when considering his days after baseball?

Burns: You know what, it doesn't matter whether it's happy or not. I think we want happiness, and that's not always given to us. In fact, we are given quantities of happiness and quantities of sadness and tragedy, and in fact everyone dies so, ultimately all stories end not positively. So it's really more about who he was.

This is an existential story. I began to realize as we were finishing the film, that Jackie actually got up and talked the talk, but also then went out and walked the walk. He got up every day and tried to make the lives of other people better and it says that on his gravestone, that you are not measured except by the difference that you make in other people's lives. And he made a huge difference. And while, at the end of his life, illness and internal family tragedy, and his own sense of frustration with the sense of progress maybe dampened his enthusiasm, our film, without actually giving it away, ends on a little bit of a slight down note, and then takes off to one of the most positive endings we have ever had to a film, which is celebrated in the fact that unlike any other sport on earth, and unlike any other person in the history of baseball, his number is alone retired in every stadium. There is nobody that wears his number now that Mariano Rivera, grandfathered in, has retired. But every April 15, every player wears his number, and that is an incredibly powerful testament to the difference he made in the lives of other people.

Roughly three-quarters of "Jackie Robinson," and you can dispute that number, is spent either before or after his time on the field with the Dodgers. Does this speak to the complexity of the man?

Burns: I would say the number is more 50-50, that by the time he's being sucked into the Dodgers narrative, and by the time he retires, that's probably half the film. Maybe not, maybe a third, but it's not a quarter; it's more than a quarter. Baseball is a huge, important story here, and it's the central story. If he hadn't been good at what he did in baseball, Jackie Robinson may have become something else, but I don't know what that would have been. And I think it was very important that he walked in that door in the national pastime and changed forever the national pastime.

One of my favorite statistics, just as a sidebar, is that in the years after Jackie, when the National League still kind of brought up African-Americans in sort of token fashion of one or maybe two per team, African-Americans won the MVP in the National League nine out of 11 years. That tells you what you were missing all that time Americans clung to this stupid so-called gentleman's agreement (to not allow African-American players).

I love what (sports historian) John Thorn said, that it proceeded of its own noxious force. I think that's exactly it. So yeah, baseball, is throughout, but we wanted to get to the whole life of a person whose baseball career from '47 through '56 was one thing, but he has a lot of life before that and a lot of life after it. It's interesting that he becomes a hugely important person in the civil rights movement, flying down south to offer support and prayers and help and solidarity, participating in the march on Washington. All of that is terrific.

Rachel Robinson has an intelligent grace about her, sides you conveyed well in the documentary. How enjoyable has it been to get to know her over the years?

Burns: We didn't do anything. She is 92 years old; she looks 70. She's beautiful inside as well as beautiful outside. She is tough, thoughtful, she has all of her marbles, and some of mine, and I want them back. She is great. And I think at one level, this is a very complete multigenerational portrait of an African-American family, but it is also, at its heart, a love story as well, and I think it is one the best love stories I have ever come across. It's tough -- we don't sugarcoat it, there are times when she returned the engagement ring. That is a real classic proto-feminist move to make, and then even later, in the '50s, when she wants to go out into the workforce and he doesn't want her to. She just has to set him right. I love her. She is an amazing human being. This film wouldn't be what it is without her. The Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she started, gave us unusual access. And more than anything, besides having the rare opportunity to speak to her daughter, and her surviving son, Sharon and David respectively, the fact that we had three separate interviews with her and she was willing to share the difficult and painful, as well as the heroic, was a great gift to our project.

Barack and Michelle Obama appear briefly throughout the four hours, including a moment of levity when the president glances at his wife. How important was it to you to include them in the story you were telling?

Burns: It was hugely important. If you think about it, what Jackie did is not dissimilar to what the president has done, becoming the first. And so I think there is really an important parallel. But, then again, there's also the fact that both of them depended on strong women to get them to where they were. There would be no Jackie without Rachel and I don't think there would a Barack Obama without Michelle. So we have these four people, two couples, hurtling through different spaces in time, who remind you of the similarities. And there you have the intimacy of Jackie and Rachel, given to us by Rachel, and then you have their own sort of regularness. Here you have the most powerful couple on Earth, and they have their own routine, or not even a routine. Everybody recognizes that moment. People both cry and laugh at that moment when we screen it because it shows them as the human beings they are, and the struggles that couples have, and the love they have and the dependency they have on each other.

How hard of an interview was that to get, or was it simple considering the subject matter you came to talk about?

Burns: Well, it's the President of the United States, so it's not simple, but yes, they were very generous, and I had the opportunity to ask Michelle before the interview happened, whether she would be willing to participate in it as well. Then her office took it over to make sure that the interview did happen and she said she would participate, and I think her participation is wonderful. When you first see the president, you think, "Oh goodness, they have the president, how nice," and all of a sudden it widens out to a two-shot and you have both of them. You begin to realize the way they are interrelated and I love that. It was an incredible gift and I am forever grateful. But not just to them, but to Harry Belafonte and to Howard Bryant and to all of the other folks that helped us on the film: John Thorn, and the survivors of that Brooklyn team, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. The historians like Yohuru Williams and Gerald Early, as well as John Gordon, Jonathan Hyde. I think it was a great ensemble, and I think that's the great thing about filmmaking that it may be about Jackie, but it takes a lot of people for Jackie to exist and it takes a lot of people for Sarah, Dave and I to make this film.

You were born in Brooklyn and were 4 years old when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Were you ever a fan of the team?

Burns: Yes, and it's a bit of a misnomer (being born in Brooklyn). My parents lived on the Upper West Side. My dad was a graduate student at Columbia, but my mom had a job at a lab at Kings County Hospital, so I was born in Brooklyn, but I have not stayed there. My grown children live in Brooklyn and my grandchildren live in Brooklyn, so that's great. And my first film was on the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but all that is coincidental.

I was indeed a (fan of the Dodgers) because of that. I knew that I had been born in Brooklyn. At that time we were living in Delaware. My father had grown up in Baltimore, so I was sort of an American League, Orioles fan. But I always rooted for the Dodgers in the National League, and my early baseball heroes were [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale and John Roseboro and Maury Wills. I thought I was small and fast when I was in Little League and so Maury Wills was my hero and really wanted to steal bases and tried to like he did.

Do you see yourself tackling the subject of baseball ever again in your work?

Burns: Of course, of course. I did our original nine-inning episodes, 18½ hour series that came out in '94, and in 2010 we updated it with what we called the 10th inning, which was a two-part, four-hour film on the '90s and the aughts, and my feeling is that if the Cubs win the World Series, I would be there. They're having a bit of a bad century.