'After Jackie' reveals different side of Robinson, inspires activism

July 29th, 2022

NEW YORK -- On the corner of Varick and Grand Streets in Lower Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood now resides what will surely be New York City’s newest cultural institution.

On Tuesday morning, the ribbon was cut on the Jackie Robinson Museum, a 19,000-square-foot space dedicated to educating, inspiring and challenging visitors with the story of the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and fought for civil rights until his untimely passing in 1972.

The Museum put on its inaugural program on Wednesday, an exclusive screening of the “After Jackie” documentary, presented by Chevrolet, and an ensuing panel discussion about the film’s significance within the overarching legacy of Robinson’s barrier-breaking life and career.

The doc was executive produced by UNINTERRUPTED -- the Sports Emmy-winning media platform founded by NBA superstar LeBron James -- and premiered on the History Channel in June. It sheds light on the struggles that Black baseball players who came after Robinson endured in pushing for progress, with particular attention paid to a trio of Cardinals: Hall of Famer Bob Gibson; Curt Flood, whose challenge to baseball’s reserve clause led to the creation of free agency; and Bill White, the first Black broadcaster and president of the National League.

Nearly 400 guests convened in the lot across from the Museum to take in both the 90-minute screening and the half-hour conversation, which featured former Yankees ace CC Sabathia, “After Jackie” director Andre Gaines, UNINTERRUPTED’s chief content officer Jamal Henderson, Chevrolet multicultural marketing manager Charles Chapman and television personality Desus Nice. Pro softball player A.J. Andrews, who recently joined MLB Network’s on-air lineup, moderated the discussion.

What stood out most about the doc to the panelists was the side of Robinson that isn’t portrayed as often, a version that Gaines defined as “Jackie as an agitator.”

“The way that it’s described -- Jackie breaking the color barrier -- it’s like a good bowl of oatmeal, you know?” Gaines said. “There’s no deviation from something that’s very American and traditional. But the truth of the matter is that he ruffled a lot of feathers. By the time that he ended [his career] in the game, he was one of the most hated men in baseball. I was surprised by that. And it was because he was designed at the outset to be the guy that could hold his tongue, stand his ground and just sort of stay away from trouble and not respond.”

“We all know he was a first, but really, he was an advocate,” Henderson said. “And he was getting in people’s [face], he was on them. A lot of people don’t know that about Jackie.”

That was the impetus behind the making of the film under the UNINTERRUPTED umbrella, with its “More Than An Athlete” mantra. Robinson exemplified that as one of the foremost player-activists in sports history, alongside individuals such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That legacy lives on presently through the likes of James and Colin Kaepernick and certain Black players in MLB.

When The Players Alliance was founded in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there were conversations around what the on-field response should look like. Sabathia said Dodgers star Mookie Betts stepped up as the seminal voice for Black Major Leaguers who sought to take a stand against injustice.

“He said, ‘I’m the leader here, I’m the biggest player, I have the biggest contract, I’m taking a knee,’” Sabathia said. “And that allowed everybody else in the league to take a knee [during the national anthem]. It was the same thing that Jackie did. How to nurture ourselves and be able to go up there and be activists and stand up for each other, all those things are still relevant today.”

Advocating for change now comes with the territory of being a professional athlete from an underrepresented background. Using their platform matters, as does the visibility of existing in spaces where it’s still a rarity for Black people to be seen and heard.

“I can remember the very first time I realized how important representation was,” Andrews said. “It was after coming out of a game where I did not perform well. A young black mother and her child come up to me and say, ‘You’re my daughter’s favorite player.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Nah, you must have the wrong person, I did not have a good game.’ She said, ‘No, my daughter has never seen someone like you playing at this level, and you will now and forever be her first and favorite professional softball player.’”

The creators of the documentary hope that it can be a similar catalyst for the next generation to understand how far the game (and the world) has come, while realizing how far there is still to go. As Nice aptly put it, “If we don’t tell our stories, who’s going to tell them for us?”

The Museum is a physical embodiment of that mission as well. Sabathia, who spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, spent some time before Wednesday’s event walking through the expansive pantheon with Della Britton, president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation (which funded the Museum), marveling at the culmination of a project that was 14 years in the making.

“It’s just incredible,” Sabathia said of the Museum, which will be open to the public on Sept. 5. “That’s what people need to understand: Jackie was an American icon more than he was just a baseball player. … It’s a perfect spot for teams to be able to come in here -- not only baseball teams, but football teams and basketball teams -- whenever they come [into town].

“Everybody’s been texting me because they saw my pictures and stuff from yesterday, just asking when it’s opening. So I’m sure it’ll be flooded with baseball players here as soon as they open it.”