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Ken Burns: "Baseball is a mirror of our country"

Posted at 9:56 AM, Jun 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-28 13:55:48-04

This is Ebbets Field in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City on April 15, 1947. It's opening day, and more than 26,000 fans have turned out to see first baseman, number 42, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, in his debut game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Eight hundred miles away at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, a young student there eagerly follows as Robinson makes American social history that day, breaking the racial barrier in major league baseball and paving the way for the future civil rights movement. That student's name is Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War took place not at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina; not on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama; not in a barracks of our military; not in schools in Topeka, Kansas … but on a baseball diamond in Brooklyn, New York.

Historian John Thorn sums it up perfectly in this clip from our 1994 series, "Baseball": "For me, baseball's finest moment is the day Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league field for the first time, in 1947. I'm most proud to be an American, most proud to be a baseball fan, when baseball has led America rather than followed it."

Baseball is a mirror of our country, in all its complexity. Since the Civil War, baseball has been a constant, a through-line, a microcosm of larger events happening off the field.

The history of baseball is the story of immigration, the exclusion of women, the struggles between labor and management, and, of course, race.

And it's helped us through some of our darkest times. During World War II, FDR refused to cancel baseball because he felt it necessary. After 9/11, to the shock of many, baseball started up again the following Monday – and across the country, stadiums were full of "I 💗New York" signs.

Today, as we face an unprecedented crisis and consider how to move forward, we long for baseball to return, to pull us together as it has in the past, to restore a sense of normality and routine. But that's not what this moment is asking of us.

Now – once again – baseball has the opportunity to lead rather than follow, to guide us in prioritizing health and safety, sacrificing individual freedom for the collective good. We will remember this season, regardless of how it unfolds, not just because of the lack of our game, but because of what we have been asked to do: to stay home together.

And when this is behind us, I'll be at Fenway with my daughters, waiting to hear those two glorious words: "Play ball!"