Where Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson documentary goes awry.

Ken Burns’ New Documentary Debunked a Central Jackie Robinson Myth. Except That It’s Not a Myth.

Ken Burns’ New Documentary Debunked a Central Jackie Robinson Myth. Except That It’s Not a Myth.

The stadium scene.
April 15 2016 3:45 PM

Jackie Robinson Myth-Busting Gone Wrong

Ken Burns’ new documentary doesn’t tell the full story about Robinson’s embrace with Pee Wee Reese.

Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson signs a then-record contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in this undated photo.

STR/Getty Images

In his excellent new documentary on Jackie Robinson, which premiered on PBS this week, Ken Burns contends that one of the most enduring images of racial brotherhood in sports—Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white Kentuckian, putting his arm around Jackie Robinson, his pioneering black teammate—“never happened.” Although Burns is correct that there is some mythology around the event, my research suggests the event did in fact happen—just not when and where most people think.

The Reese–Robinson embrace, according to the documentary, is another of the enduring myths surrounding America’s national pastime, like the now-discredited story about Abner Doubleday’s inventing baseball in Cooperstown, New York, or Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root during the 1932 World Series. According to this line of thinking, the statue outside the Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium at MCU Park in Coney Island memorializing the supposed embrace is a feel-good story taken too far.

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It’s true that the statue, like most other accounts of the event, repeats the mythical part of the episode as fact. But it would be better to just update the inscription below the statue than to tear it down entirely.

Pitcher Rex Barney recalled the supposed moment in Peter Golenbock’s oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bums. Barney and some of Robinson’s other teammates insisted they saw Reese put his arm around Robinson in 1947, his first major league season, in either Philadelphia or Cincinnati (the statue says it was in Cincinnati).

Robinson, who promised Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey not to answer racist taunts with his fists or his mouth in 1947, would have needed a friend in those two cities. From the Phillies’ dugout, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman spewed racial insults at Robinson. Cincinnati was one of the southernmost Major League cities at the time and where Robinson later received death threats; Reese also would have been playing in front of family and friends from his nearby Louisville, Kentucky, home. With time, however, memories faded, and now the evidence that it happened in Cincinnati is scant. “I was there,” Dodger great Duke Snider told me in 2006, “but I don’t remember the incident. I thought it was in Cincinnati. That’s what I read.”

The documentary correctly observes that the embrace likely did not happen in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, or anywhere else during Robinson’s first season in 1947. But it goes too far in implying that it did not happen at all. “Today it’s remembered in statues, in children’s books, but I don’t think it happened,” Jonathan Eig, author of the terrific book Opening Day about that first season, said in the documentary. “The myth serves a really nice purpose. Unfortunately, it is a myth.” Eig tempers his remarks in his blog, insisting that “there’s very little reason to believe it happened in 1947, when it would have mattered most.”

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Baseball historian John Thorn seemed more open than Eig to the possibility that it happened, just not in 1947. “We don’t know that this ever happened,” Thorn said in the documentary. “We don’t know when it happened. It is likely that if it happened, it didn’t happen in 1947, because Reese would have had to traipse across the diamond to first base to throw his arm around Jackie.” During his rookie season, Robinson played exclusively at first. The documentary concluded that “there was no mention of the gesture that year in either the white or black press.” In an interview with ESPN, Burns was more forceful, stating it “never happened.” “There is no image or write-up anywhere,” he said.

There is no way to know for sure when Reese put his arm around Robinson. But it most likely did happen in April 1948 in Boston—this is according to none other than Robinson himself.

An interview with Robinson in the July 1952 issue of Focus magazine, which was edited by noted baseball writer Arnold Hano, reveals the first specific reference to the incident. In response to a question about “turning points in your experience as a Dodger,” Robinson replied: “We were in Boston in ’48, and the Braves were ‘giving it’ to Reese for playing shortstop alongside me. Peewee came over from shortstop, put his arm around my shoulders, as if he had something to say. Actually, he just wanted to show where he stood. The jeers subsided … ”

Robinson repeated the same story in a Feb. 8, 1955, issue of Look magazine, as well as in Carl Rowan’s 1960 biography of Robinson, Wait Till Next Year, and Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Robinson told Look: “Pee Wee was great to me in 1948 when Eddie Stanky went to the Boston Braves and I moved to second base. He took a lot of bitter abuse around the circuit because of it. Pee Wee comes from Louisville and the bench jockeys kept asking him how it felt to be playing beside a Negro. The first day we played in Boston that spring the Braves tried to give us a real bad time. But Pee Wee shut them up. He walked over to me and put his arm around me and talked with me in a friendly manner, smiling and laughing. There was no more trouble after that from the Braves. He did the same thing later in other parks.”

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In 1948, Robinson was no longer the lone black player in the game (Larry Doby had joined the Cleveland Indians in June of 1947), or even on his own team (Roy Campanella was the Dodgers’ starting catcher). But it makes sense that the incident occurred in April 1948. A month earlier, Stanky had been traded to the Braves, opening second base for Robinson and turning Reese and Robinson into the game’s first interracial double-play combination on an everyday basis.

On April 26 and 27, a week into the 1948 season, the Dodgers played the Braves in Boston. The newspapers focused on the bench-jockeying between Stanky and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. The fiery Stanky, nicknamed “the Brat,” was no racist. He had defended Robinson against the taunts of Phillies manager Ben Chapman in 1947. But Stanky had been traded to make room at second base for the 20th century’s first black major leaguer. It makes sense to imagine that he or his teammates would have gone after Reese. Robinson, overweight and nursing a sore shoulder, played one inning at second base in the first game and started there in the second.

That something like the incident Robinson describes occurred, however, did not go unnoticed by all the Dodgers beat writers. Bill Roeder, who covered the team for the New York World-Telegram, wrote in his biography of Robinson following the 1949 season: “Because Reese came from Louisville, the opposition dugouts began to tease him about having a Negro as a double play partner. Immune to the joshing himself, Pee Wee felt that it might unsettle Robinson. So, early in the season, he made it a point to confer at needless length with the Negro during each infield workout. Players in the other dugout would see Reese and Robinson standing at second base for several minutes, talking and laughing and seeming to be having a good time. The result was that the kidding ceased, and a great many players around the league formed a new respect for Robinson as an individual. If Pee Wee liked him, the players concluded, the guy must be all right.”

Reese had already repeatedly showed that just because he was from Kentucky did not mean that he had to bow to the evils of racial prejudice. He downplayed the fact that Robinson, when he joined the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club in Montreal in 1946, was a shortstop, Reese’s position. The following year, Reese refused to sign a petition started by one of his Southern Dodger teammates objecting to Robinson’s presence on the team. In the clubhouse and on team train rides, he often joined Robinson in friendly card games with other teammates. During an off day on the golf course in June 1947, Reese invited Robinson and black sportswriter Wendell Smith to join his foursome in the middle of the round.

To his credit, Reese, who died in 1999, never made a big deal out of his relationship with Robinson. But Robinson, who died in 1972, treasured Reese’s friendship more than that of any other teammate. Their relationship was based on mutual admiration and respect. Together, they helped make the team that Roger Kahn dubbed “the Boys of Summer” so special. It is fitting that Reese and Robinson are now immortalized in bronze in front of a Brooklyn ballpark—even if the inscription on the statue might need some updating.