04/07/2016 14:01 EDT | Updated 04/08/2017 01:12 EDT

New Ken Burns doc explores Jackie Robinson's life, including time in Montreal

Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's colour barrier, he played ball in Canada.

The story is told in the new PBS documentary "Jackie Robinson," a two-part, four-hour film by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns — along with daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon — that airs Monday and Tuesday night on PBS.

Before Robinson made history, outstanding black athletes played in the Negro leagues. Baseball owners feared white fans would boycott games if black athletes were added to major league rosters. Resistance to integration was strong.

"In 1945, the owners of the 16 major league teams took a vote to integrate," Burns told reporters earlier this year in Pasadena, Calif. "Fifteen of them voted against it." Only the Brooklyn Dodgers voted in favour.

Motivated by business sense as well as idealism, Dodgers president Branch Rickey had scouts in the Negro leagues looking for the right man to break the colour barrier. Robinson, a former soldier as well as a star athlete at UCLA, had impressed while playing for Kansas City.

Equally impressive was Robinson's wife, Rachel. The two had met in college and their love story shines throughout the documentary. At 93, she remains passionate and intensely loyal to Robinson's legacy, as reporters witnessed at Burns's press conference.

"It was us against the world, and we enjoyed that," says Rachel Robinson.

The Dodgers' Triple A farm team was based in Montreal and the Robinsons' trip north was a fortuitous turn of events, says Burns, since they would be in a country that "did not have a history of slavery and gave (them) a welcome home."

Rachel has warm memories of finding a home in Montreal. The couple had previously found doors slammed in their faces, even in New York City.

"I knocked on a door and expected to be rejected," says Rachel. The woman let her in, showed her around the apartment, made her tea and told her to make sure to use the fine linens and china.

"That introduction just set Montreal up for us," says Rachel. "It was fabulous."

Montreal sports fans were just as welcoming to Robinson. When the Montreal Royals won the Little World Series in 1946, Burns says the city's fans "chased him down the street and they picked him up on their shoulders."

A Pittsburgh sportswriter wrote, "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

The next year, he went on to become Major League Baseball's first rookie of the year, helping the Dodgers make it to the World Series. Robinson did all this while bearing abuse and rejection from fans, opposing players and even a few teammates. For three years, he kept his promise to Rickey to "turn the other cheek."

Keep in mind, says Burns, that this was "before Martin Luther King was out of college, before there was Brown vs. Board of Education, before there were Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat." Here was Robinson, continues Burns, "the grandson of a slave, making the statement in the largest and most popular sport, and really the only sport that existed nationwide."

Robinson made a profound impression on people of colour everywhere — including Canada.

"I didn't meet Jackie until 1968," says Ferguson Jenkins, the Chatham, Ont., native who posted six straight 20-game winning seasons with the Chicago Cubs on his way to becoming the first Canadian-born player to enter baseball's Hall of Fame.

That year, Jenkins had been invited to an Operation P.U.S.H. meeting organized by Rev. Jesse Jackson. By then, as the documentary shows, Robinson was diminished by diabetes and struggling to stay relevant as the civil rights movement pushed for gains across North America. He died in 1972, at just 53.

"He wasn't the physical structure of the man when he played," recalls Jenkins, "but I'm glad I had a chance to speak with him briefly and shake his hand."

The premiere of Burns's 29th film comes right before baseball's annual "Jackie Robinson Day." Every season on April 15 — the day 69 years ago when Robinson made his major league debut — players throughout the league wear his No. 42.


— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press