After watching Ken Burns’ latest offering on KET, I must point out that his Jackie Robinson documentary was flawed in one area important to Kentuckians and baseball purists alike.
This two-night special was largely built around the leftover footage from his last special on baseball with new interviews from many people, including Jackie’s widow, Rachael Robinson, and the Obamas. Still, there was something missing.
It is true, as reported, that Kentuckian Pee Wee Reese, then the shortstop and captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, received praise for befriending Jackie Robinson when he became the first black man to play major league baseball. That was an action not universally practiced by opposing players and some of his own teammates during those days that would eventually change the sport of baseball forever.
What was not adequately addressed in the documentary, however, was any mention of the role then-Baseball Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler played in this groundbreaking event.
Chandler, a native Kentuckian who served as lieutenant governor, governor (twice), state senator and U.S. senator, had been selected to follow Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as baseball’s second commissioner. The job was created after the 1919 Black Sox scandal showed a need for such a position.
Chandler’s tenure was full of tough challenges, including ending the Mexican League’s raid on U.S. players, starting the players pension fund and banning Leo Durocher for one year for gambling. He also had to bring the sport back to full operation after the loss of players to World War II, which included avoiding a strike in support of unionizing players.
In short, he had his hands full. To add to the complexity of his new job, Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey came requesting that the Dodgers be allowed to promote Jackie Robinson to the majors from his minor league team in Montreal. The minor leagues were not controlled by the commissioner, which allowed Robinson to play there for a year before Brooklyn was ready to promote him. The baseball owners had voted 15 to 1 against permitting Robinson joining the Dodgers.
Landis had handled these questions for 24 years simply by ignoring them or dismissing them out of hand since major league baseball had been a game reserved for whites.
Chandler invited Rickey to meet with him in the cabin behind his house in Versailles. It was cold, making it necessary to add several logs to the fire as their meeting extended into the evening.
At the end of the meeting, Chandler had been satisfied that Jackie Robinson could play major league baseball while serving as a model citizen — not an easy expectation considering the racial affronts both men knew would be coming his way. Chandler then had to announce his decision to allow Robinson to join the Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color line. An outcome of that decision was to then face the other 15 owners who refused to extend Chandler’s contract, in effect firing him.
Years later the baseball writers elected him into the Hall of Fame recognizing all the good he did for baseball, even though the owners had evaluated him poorly from their narrow point of view at the time.
Ken Burns captured none of this in his documentary. He swung and missed on an important element of the story, for without Happy Chandler there would not have been the Jackie Robinson story as we know it.
Richard Crowe lives in Hazard and tells stories about Kentucky characters including Happy Chandler.
At issue: April 11 Los Angeles Times article, “Ken Burns’ ‘Jackie Robinson’ documentary is a lump-in-the-throat trip that goes beyond baseball”