Seventy-five years ago—on April 15, 1947—Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color line in major league baseball.
His story has been well-documented in books and movies. But until recent years, an important part of the story was usually overlooked.
Robinson was a Christian. Every night before he went to bed, he got down on his knees and prayed. “It’s the best way to get closer to God,” he said.
Two books published five years ago, in particular, have thrown a spotlight on Robinson’s faith: Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb and 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry.
Robinson, who famously wore jersey number 42, and Dodgers president Branch Rickey were Methodists. Rickey didn’t attend games on Sundays, and Robinson didn’t drink or smoke and taught Sunday School.
“I think there are different explanations why his faith has been ignored,” Lamb told Religion Unplugged. “One of them is that Robinson—unlike Rickey—was private about his religion. It wasn’t something he talked a lot about. The book of Matthew quotes Jesus as telling us to avoid praying publicly. Secondly, Robinson’s significance comes more in his work in baseball and in civil rights and not in religion. That said, he couldn’t have achieved what he did without his faith and his wife, Rachel.”
Preparing Jackie Robinson
Rickey had no illusions about the discrimination Robinson would face if he became the first Black man to play in the majors since the nineteenth century. He knew Robinson struggled with his temper and feared that if he couldn’t control himself, it would make integrating baseball more difficult.
When they met for the first time in 1945, Rickey said, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Long and Lamb describe the scene in Rickey’s office in their book:
“He took off his coat and transformed himself from baseball executive to method actor. First, he was a white hotel clerk refusing the black Robinson a room, then a white waiter denying Robinson service, and then a white train conductor sticking a finger in Robinson’s face and calling him ‘boy.’
“Rickey then became a foul-mouthed opposing player who, as Robinson later recalled, derided ‘my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable.’”
In the final part of his act, Rickey mimicked a base stealer who tried to spike Robinson. Then Rickey opened a book and read part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, including Matthew 5:39: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (KJV)
Robinson responded, “I’ve got two cheeks, Mr. Rickey.”
Robinson was “almost Christ-like” in facing discrimination
After a season in the minor leagues, Robinson made the Dodgers in 1947. If anything, the discrimination he faced during his first season with Brooklyn was worse than Rickey predicted. Some of his teammates signed a petition calling for him to be removed from the roster, and he received death threats. Yet he batted .297, earning Rookie of the Year honors.
Rickey praised him as “almost Christ-like” in the way he lived up to the commitment he made that day in Rickey’s office.
“I can testify to the fact that it was a lot harder to turn the other cheek and refuse to fight back than it would have been to exercise a normal reaction,” Robinson wrote. “But it works, because sooner or later it brings a sense of shame to those who attack you. And that sense of shame is often the beginning of progress.”
Jackie Robinson’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement
Robinson went on to have a Hall of Fame career and eventually began to speak out more, with Rickey’s blessing. In many ways, Robinson’s example set the tone for the Civil Rights Movement, and after he retired from baseball following the 1956 season, he became more actively involved.
He befriended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and maintained an active correspondence with presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, praising them when they advanced the cause of civil rights and chastising them when they did not.
A member of the board of the NAACP, he witnessed moments of triumph and tragedy in the movement. He attended the March on Washington in 1963 with his children and heard King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The previous year, Robinson visited Black churches in the Albany, Georgia area that had been burned, apparently by white racists, after participating in a drive to register African Americans to vote. He led a fundraising effort to rebuild the churches.
The lasting impact of Jackie Robinson’s faith
Plagued by diabetes and almost blind, he died of a heart attack in 1972. He was only fifty-three.
As the funeral cortege made its way to a cemetery in Brooklyn, thousands of people lined the streets. When fans make the pilgrimage to his gravesite today, they can read one of his favorite sayings inscribed on the tombstone: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Baseball retired his number in 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his rookie season. Now, every player on every team wears his No. 42 on April 15—a reminder that we can all be Jackie Robinsons in the impact we have on others.