Every year on April 15th Major League Baseball Celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. Every player on the field wears the number 42, as they celebrate the day in which Jackie Robinson played his first major league baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier back in 1947. Robinson’s story is well-known. There is, however, a part of the story that often goes untold; the role that the Bible played in Robinson’s success.
The story of how the Bible impacted Robinson began with his mother, Mallie. Mallie was a strong Christian woman, who was a faithful member of her church. When her son, Jackie, began getting into trouble as a youth, Mallie sought the help of a young African American Pastor, Karl Downs. Downs took Robinson under his wings, teaching him the importance of prayer and of social and racial equality. Robinson continued to grow in his faith, his character, and his athletic ability. He soon went to UCLA, where he met his wife, Rachel. Instead of completing his degree, Robinson left school early to play baseball in the Negro League.
The Negro League was challenging for Robinson for a number of reasons. First, teams were forced to stay in dirty motels, eat cheap junk food, and were paid very little. Second, Robinson found that the majority of players in the league enjoyed drinking, partying, and the company of women in ways that made him uncomfortable. Robinson refused to partake in them, earning a reputation for both his high moral standards and his stubborn refusal to bend in the face of peer pressure.
While playing in the Negro League, Robinson caught the attention of a man named Branch Rickey.
Wesley Branch Rickey’s name alone gives you good insight into his upbringing. He was named after John Wesley; the founder of Methodism, and the name “Branch” is believed to have come from Isaiah 11:1, a verse which prophesied the birth of Christ; “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
Rickey grew up in church, and, like Robinson, had strong moral beliefs from which he refused to stray. His moral beliefs derailed his baseball career. Rickey was a good catcher; good enough to make it to the pros. However, as a Christian, he refused to play on the Sabbath. His refusal to play that day caused his first team to trade him; his second team to trade him; and his third team to transition him from player to manager. Rickey thrived as a manager, and later became the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a shrewd businessman, who often drew the ire of his competitors, mostly because he continuously outsmarted them.
But, there was something eating away at Rickey. Before his professional career began, Rickey played baseball at Ohio Wesleyan. One of his teammates, Charles “Tommy” Thomas, was African American. During a road trip to the University of Notre Dame, the team was planning on staying at a nearby Indiana hotel. Players checked in one by one without incident, until it was Thomas’s turn. The clerk rudely told Thomas that African Americans weren’t welcome at the hotel. His teammates stood up for him, but the clerk wouldn’t budge. Finally, shrewd Branch Rickey thought of something. He knew that hotels allowed African American servants to sleep in their master’s rooms. So, Rickey asked if Thomas could sleep on a cot in his room. The clerk allowed it, so Thomas and Rickey became roommates for the night. Rickey recalls hearing Thomas crying and rubbing his skin saying; “Black skin, black skin. If only I could make them white.” Thomas and Rickey remained friends for years. Rickey, recounted this story decades later, saying that this account moved his heart to want to challenge baseball’s color barrier.
To break the color barrier, Rickey would need someone special. He wasn’t just looking for a player with talent; there were plenty of players with the talent in Negro Leagues to succeed in the majors. He was looking for someone who possessed several qualities; the drive to push through oppression, the strength to remain cool under incredibly intense pressure and hatred, and the strength that can only be found in Christ to get you through it all.
Rickey wanted to scout the Negro League teams to find the right person, but didn’t want his intentions discovered, for fear that he would be stopped. He claimed interest in beginning a new Negro League Team and claimed to be scouting players for it. His scouts found Jackie Robinson.
Rickey was impressed by the reports that he’d received, so he called Robinson in for an interview. He began by asking Robinson if he knew why he was there. Robinson thought that he did; because Rickey wanted him to play for a new Negro League team. Rickey told him that he was wrong; that he wanted him to play for the Dodgers. He knew that Robinson had the talent, but he also knew that Robinson had a temper. He told the young player that he wasn’t sure he had the guts to make it.
This angered Robinson. No one had ever questioned his guts before. But, before he could respond, Rickey clarified that he was looking for someone with the guts not to fight back. The unfair accusation made against African Americans was that they didn’t have the temperament to play in the Major Leagues; that they would be easily angered, lose their temper, and cause fights. If an African American were to challenge this mindset, they would have insults hurled at as those who stood against them would do everything in their power to make them lose their cool. Robinson would need to promise never to lose his temper and fight back, no matter how badly he was treated.
Rickey then quoted the Scriptures. Matthew 5:38-42; 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. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
In his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson recalls responding plainly and simply; “I’ve got two cheeks, Mr. Rickey? Is that it?” He vowed to do everything in his power to ignore the hatred and racism he would face to prove that African Americans belonged in the game of baseball.
Robinson endured a hate-filled spring training in Florida in 1946 and played minor league baseball in a far more accepting environment in Montreal. After achieving great success in the minors, he was called up to the begin the 1947 season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A pivotal moment in Robinson’s young career came on April 22 that year, a week into the season. The Dodgers were playing the Phillies at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. It was a cold day, so the stadium was far emptier than usual. Fans could hear what was said on the field and in the dugouts.
The Phillies had a manager named Ben Chapman. Chapman was from Alabama and was known for his bigotry. He had played for the Yankees in the 30’s but was traded after making Nazi salutes to fans he perceived to be Jewish. Every time Jackie Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, Chapman would verbally assault him with hate-filled attacks. His words were vicious and venomous. They were so vulgar that even Segregationists in the crowds grew uncomfortable.
Robinson was beginning to lose him composure. In his autobiography, he recalls thinking to himself; “To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment. To hell with the image of the patient, black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of b’s and smash his teen in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”
But Robinson remembered his promised to turn the other cheek. He refused to fight back, or to say a word, or to even look in the direction of the dugout. He simply played baseball that day.
As teammates, and fans, and even Segregationists watched Robinson that day, they saw him do something they doubted they could have done themselves. They saw a bravery, courage, and strength that deserved admiration and respect. While certainly not every heart was touched, and not everyone changed completely, many hearts began to change that day. Fans who walked into Ebbets field booing Robinson found themselves beginning to cheer. Teammates who didn’t want him on the team began to consider him one of the Dodgers. A young, white, high school student, Gil Jonas, was in attendance that day. Prior to that game, he never thought much about the challenge that African Americans faced. Because of what he witnessed in Robinson that day, he became an advocate of human rights and an avid fund raiser for the NAACP.
Robinson strived to put the Words of Jesus into action. In doing so, he changed the world!