Dodger Thoughts

Jon Weisman's outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball and life

Tag: Ken Burns

‘Jackie Robinson’ doc explores complex life

Jackie pic

By Jon Weisman

Tonight, the two-night, four-hour documentary “Jackie Robinson” premieres on PBS. In this piece for Dodger Insider magazine, I interviewed Ken Burns about how the documentary seeks to humanize a figure that time has made more mythological.

With each passing year, the stature of Jackie Robinson looms larger in the history of baseball and the United States.

But it has been nearly 70 years since Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, nearly 60 years since he retired from baseball and well over 40 years since he passed away. And in that time, the flesh-and-blood Robinson has only grown more and more remote.

“This is a person who has become kind of one-dimensional, [because] heroism in our media culture tends to make you just one-dimensional — perfect,” said famed documentarian Ken Burns, who with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon directed and produced the four-hour “Jackie Robinson,” airing in April on PBS. …

Read the entire article here, or in Dodger Insider magazine, which officially launches its new edition at Dodger Stadium’s Opening Day on Tuesday.

Dodgers Love L.A.: A special day connecting the dots between Jackie Robinson and Dave Roberts

Jorge Jarrin, Dave Roberts and Mark Langill address students at Muir High School.

Jorge Jarrin, Dave Roberts and Mark Langill address students at Muir High School.

By Jon Weisman

It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackie Robinson is the pride of Muir High School, just as he is the pride of the Dodgers and, for that matter, the United States.

A tribute to Jackie Robinson in the Muir High School museum.

A tribute to Jackie Robinson in the Muir High School museum (click to enlarge)

So it was a special day for everyone today when this week’s Dodgers Love L.A. community tour (presented by Bank of America) made a stop at Muir, with a screening of portions of Ken Burns’ upcoming “Jackie Robinson” documentary, followed by a Q&A featuring manager Dave Roberts and team historian Mark Langill, moderated by broadcaster Jorge Jarrin.

Many of the four score students in attendance today will graduate from Muir exactly 80 years after Robinson did. But not to worry — his story still resonates.

“I loved the documentary,” said Bryan Barrios, senior captain of the Muir baseball team. “It was very inspiring (and) emotional. I walk around this campus just thinking about Jackie Robinson all the time. Sometimes I can’t believe he came here.”

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Ken Burns’ ‘Tenth Inning’ hits and misses at the plate

PBSPedro Martinez

My lack of anticipation for “The Tenth Inning,” Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s four-hour sequel (airing in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS) to Burns’ 1994 documentary, “Baseball,” could hardly have contrasted more to how eager I was to see the original.

That 18-hour documentary came out when Burns’ glorious “The Civil War” was still fresh in my mind, came out during the work stoppage that caved in the 1994 baseball season and, perhaps most importantly, largely featured material from the distant past. Buck O’Neil, to whom “The Tenth Inning” is dedicated, made “Baseball” worthwhile all by himself.

By contrast, I wasn’t in any hurry to relive post-1993 baseball via the Burns treatment. I didn’t feel I had enough distance. (On top of that, “Tenth” figured to be exceedingly light on Dodger content, providing a reminder of how absent Los Angeles has been from baseball relevance for most of the past two decades.)

That latter concern was certainly borne out, but I will tell you that I did enjoy “Tenth” a bit more than I expected, with Burns (along with co-writers David McMahon and Novick) showing that at times, he can still deliver the goods.

It’s true that it’s tough to be a Dodger fan watching this program. Basically, the best one can do is take in the homage to Pedro Martinez and recall the time when he was ours, or take in the homage to Dave Roberts’ World Series steal and recall the time when he was ours. Furthermore, I felt personally insulted by the documentary’s suggestion that “no Latin player, not even (Roberto) Clemente or the Dodgers’ great Mexican pitcher of the 1980s, Fernando Valenzuela, had ever before received such an outpouring of affection and admiration” as Sammy Sosa.

But I did enjoy revisiting recent baseball history – being transported back to Fernando Cabrera’s pennant-clinching hit or seeing names like Tony Gwynn celebrated once again – more than I expected.

“Tenth” also did a better job than I feared injecting nuance into the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs, a topic that permeates the four hours. Through its sources and narrator Keith “Goliath” David, “Tenth” provides a brief history of cheating in baseball, knocking down some of the holier-than-thou aspects of the debate, and explaining why, even as suspicions rose, people didn’t really want to investigate.

“Innocence is beautiful, sometimes,” Martinez says memorably.

And though Barry Bonds’ story was somewhat sadly tiresome, the set-up wasn’t: a focus on Bonds’ father Bobby and how his troubled career shaped Barry, yielding the person who would stare unabashedly into the face of the disgust directed toward him:

“Boo me! Cheer me!” Bonds exclaims at a press conference. “Those that are gonna cheer me are gonna cheer me; those that are gonna boo me are gonna boo me. So what. But they’re still gonna come see the show. … Dodger Stadium is the best show that I go to in all my life in baseball. They say ‘Barry sucks!’ louder than anybody out there. And you know what, you’ll see me in left field (encouraging them), because you know what, you’ve got to have some serious talent to have 53,000 people say ‘You suck.’ I’m proud of that.”

There are moments when “Tenth” goes beyond the obvious to tell its stories, and those moments are pretty great.

However, particularly in the second part, there are also extended stretches in which the storytelling fails to reach any kind of height, stretches in which the storytelling is completely conventional, no more special than a run-of-the-mill sports documentary that gets thrown together without such fanfare. Because of this, I think that “The Tenth Inning” will be appreciated more by the casual fan than the dedicated fan (and, of course, enjoyed much more by fans of the teams depicted than the teams ignored).

“As its flaws become apparent, (baseball) actually gains depth and humanity, even as it loses its fairy-tale, mythic qualities,” says sportswriter Thomas Boswell, who quietly emerges as perhaps the best on-screen voice of the documentary. Burns and his team get this concept, and I’m glad. The tone to the conclusion of 240-minute endeavor couldn’t be more appropriate. I just wish “The Tenth Inning” had pursued more off-the-beaten path stories, stories like Buck O’Neil and Bobby Bonds, than spending so much time on the more familiar recent history that feels like it’s been sitting on a warming tray.

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