It was 1948, during Jackie Robinson’s second season in Major League Baseball, when some bigots in Cincinnati were really giving him the business.
Just the previous year, Robinson had been the one with the monumental courage to break the color barrier as the first African American of the modern era to play in baseball’s highest league. He had endured unthinkable cruelty and injustice for de-segregating the game, and he was succeeding on the field and off. Not only did he bat just a shade under .300 in 1947, and was named Rookie of the Year, but he was holding his tongue, and fists, and not fighting back.
But now, in his second campaign, some still weren’t convinced. Eric Metaxas tells the story of the “signature moment” that happened in 1948.
At one game in Cincinnati, when spectators in the stands were shouting racist comments at Robinson, his teammate Pee Wee Reese pointedly walked over to him and put his arm around him, as though to say to the bigots in the crowd “if you are against him, you’re against all of us.” It was a signature moment, and a statue commemorating it stands today in Brooklyn’s minor-league KeySpan Park. (Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, 128–129)
No Small Feat
The story of Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) — and with him Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (1881–1965) — is one of the most powerful tales American athletics has to tell. Robinson overcame what seemed like insurmountable obstacles not only by playing outstanding baseball, but even more significantly, by not retaliating when treated with rank injustice and racism. According to Metaxas, “Jackie’s not fighting back against such filth and injustice was as heroic an accomplishment as anything the sports world had ever witnessed” (126).
It is easy to miss the historical magnitude of that moment in 1947 for the advance of civil rights in America. Consider that when Rickey signed Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in baseball, it was a year before President Truman ordered the U.S. military desegregated, seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, 10 years before President Eisenhower used the U.S. military to enable the Little Rock Nine to attend Central High School in Arkansas, 16 years before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 18 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (David Prince, Ferocious Christian Gentleman)
The Shared Faith of Robinson and Branch
Many tellings of the Robinson-Branch story omit the importance of their shared Christian faith, but a few biographers have endeavored to draw this out.
Robinson was a Christian [and] his Christian faith was at the very center of his decision to accept Branch Rickey’s invitation to play for the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers. . . . Branch Rickey himself was a Bible-thumping Methodist whose faith led him to find an African American ballplayer to break the color barrier. . . .[A]t the center of one of the most important civil rights stories in America [lies] two men of passionate Christian faith. (Metaxas, 109)
Branch’s strategy for de-segregation was “non-retaliation” — a precursor to the vision of non-violence to come later in the Civil Rights Movement. But it would not just do to try to follow Jesus’s pattern. Branch was looking for someone with deep faith and proven character. Nothing less than emotionally excruciating work lay ahead. When Branch and Robinson met for the first time to explore the possibility, Branch
grilled him for hours and made him commit to three years of non-retaliation. Rickey . . . pointed him to the biblical account of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Rickey told Robinson, “We can’t fight our way through this, Robinson. We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners. No umpires. Very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid many fans will be hostile.” (Prince)
Guts Enough to Not Fight Back
Branch needed a man committed to living the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38–41 — the teaching that Jesus himself embodied in going to the cross.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:38–41)
Metaxas narrates it like this:
Rickey saw that Robinson had plenty of experience playing with white players and that — like Rickey — he was a serious Bible-believing Christian with a strong moral character. In the struggle that lay ahead, these characteristics would be crucial. He felt strongly that if the person he chose for this extraordinary task could be goaded into saying the wrong thing or appearing in any way as less than noble and dignified, the press would have a field day and the whole project would go up in flames. What was worse, if that were to happen, the whole idea of integrating baseball would likely be set back another ten or fifteen years. Rickey had to be sure he was choosing someone who understood the tremendous import of not fighting back, despite what he would hear — and he would hear plenty. But in the end, he felt he had found the man for the job. (120)
Rickey issued Robinson this pointed challenge: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough to not fight back” (122).
Not Reviling in Return
Robinson accepted, and by God’s grace, he was able to live out the vision against the onslaught of horrible racism and what Branch called “odious injustice.”
And now the rest is history — and told in book and motion picture alike. Robinson played 10 Major-League seasons. In 1949, his third season, he batted an astounding .342, drove in 124 runs, and stole 37 bases. That season he started in the All-Star game and won the National League MVP Award. He batted .329 in 1953. When it was all said and done, he had played in six consecutive All-Star games and led his team to six World-Series appearances, including a seven-game World-Series win in 1955. He retired from the game after the 1956 season at the age of 37.
Robinson was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and tragically died of a heart attack a decade later in 1972. He was only 53.
In April of 1997, Major League Baseball “universally retired” Robinson’s number 42, which means the number is now specially set aside in honor of him. No other player, on any team, can wear number 42 — except on April 15 of each year, “Jackie Robinson Day,” when every player dons the 42. This is likely the highest possible honor in the sport.
The Heart of Jackie’s Story
“The heart of the Jackie Robinson story,” says Metaxas, is that “he changed America by successfully living out, both on and off the baseball field, the revolutionary and world-changing words of Jesus” (133).
What made all the difference was both Branch’s recognition of the power of Jesus’s model of non-retaliation in Matthew 5:38–41, and Robinson’s grace-given ability to echo the almost superhuman pattern of Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
For more on the Christian faith of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:
Chapter 5, “Jackie Robinson” in Seven Men, by Eric Metaxas