Dodgers’ Mookie Betts narrates MLB video tribute to Jackie Robinson
It was poetic, profound and pointed, the words of one Dodgers legend brought to life by a star of the franchise’s future.
To celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, MLB published a video in which Mookie Betts recited renowned quotes from Robinson, narrating for images of Robinson and other Black stars of baseball history both on and off the field as they protested inequalities that remain long after their playing careers ended.
“I cannot say I have it made while our country drives full speed ahead toward a deeper rift between men and women of varying colors, speeds along a course toward more and more racism,” Betts said, his voice somber and serious as he read Robinson’s words from half a century ago.
“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstands just watching what goes on, in my opinion, you’re wasting your life.”
In New York, director Randy Wilkins’ phone began to blow up with every new view of the 90-second piece. The 40-year-old filmmaker had gotten involved with the project only after tweeting frustrations with MLB in June, when his critical response to the league’s handling of George Floyd’s killing and overall lack of diversity went viral among online baseball fans.
Officials in MLB’s offices noticed, as well, and soon reached out to the Emmy Award-winning director who also has worked on an ESPN 30 for 30 project, several Spike Lee films, and co-founded a Yankees blog on the side.
At first, Wilkins found the overtures to be an overwhelming surprise. “But when I started speaking to various people from the league,” he said, “I understood it was a genuine attempt to understand my perspective and start figuring out concrete ways to address some of the things I mentioned.”
The sides soon began collaborating on a commemorative video for Jackie Robinson Day, which was moved from April to August this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“We immediately agreed Jackie’s activism should be at the forefront of the film, and we wanted Jackie’s words to drive the story,” Wilkins said. “Using his words to carry the narrative through was way more important than anything that we could write.”
Mookie Betts showed his leadership and the Dodgers displayed their unity by getting the biggest win of the season in the fight against racism.
After scouring through archival MLB footage and written excerpts from Robinson’s autobiography and post-playing-career op-eds, Wilkins knew exactly who he wanted to narrate the piece.
“Mookie was at the top of my list,” Wilkins said, drawn to the “natural connection between Mookie and Jackie, both being Dodgers, being prominent Black players, both being transcendent talents. “The lineage was clear. I thought it was really important to show that Jackie’s legacy was living through Mookie.”
When presented with the opportunity, Betts immediately was interested. So, a day before leading the push for the Dodgers to not play Wednesday in protest of police brutality and racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Betts sat down behind a computer in San Francisco to record his lines for the piece.
When the project dropped Friday, its message and tone couldn’t have been more resonant.
“He really elevates the piece,” Wilkins said of Betts, who has been among the most vocal active MLB players on issues of race and social equality. “I think his presence, not just as a narrator, but his presence as a burgeoning leader ... in all of sports is really important. I think it was great timing to have him be the one to help tell the story.”
That Robinson’s Civil Rights Era sentiments still seemed so relevant today, however, left Wilkins feeling conflicted.
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Wilkins said. “I’m not sure that’s a great referendum on the way the country has taken on these issues and evolved.”
He added: “If you’re thinking through the lens of a filmmaker and telling a story, it was great that we could use those words. But … we should be beyond that point now. Unfortunately, in my opinion, we’re not there yet.”
Wilkins hopes the video can create one more ripple in that ever-lasting movement — that “it inspires people to continue conversations, start conversations, rethink things that they might have thought before they saw it,” he said, adding: “While we love sports, there’s also a social responsibility that comes with it that we all share.”
Or, as Betts read aloud in the clip, giving voice to perhaps Robinson’s most powerful line: “There’s not an American in this country free, until everyone of us is free.”
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