Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey knew that the first black player in major league baseball was going to go through hell.
That’s why the cigar-chomping, Bible-thumping Rickey set out to find a man who would keep believing — when facing bitter, scathing racial hatred — that the powers of heaven were on his side. As baseball writers have often noted, Rickey needed someone who could turn the other cheek, as well as turn a double play.
In writer-director Brian Helgeland’s new epic, “42,” Jackie Robinson states the challenge in blunt terms.
“You want a man,” Robinson asks, “who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
Rickey replies: “I want a man who has the guts NOT to fight back.”
The fit was perfect. In Helgeland’s script, Rickey offers this churchy equation: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”
That’s the stuff of movies, alright, but this kind of faith reference remains somewhat unusual in a Hollywood blockbuster, acknowledged Eric Metaxas, who is best known for writing the global bestseller “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” The problem, he said, is that “42” omitted many other details that would have demonstrated that faith was crucial to the whole story.
There’s no doubt that Robinson was a remarkable man, argues Metaxas, in his new “Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.” But Robinson was also a remarkably courageous and truly devout Christian man. Thus, he included Robinson’s story in a book that explores the faith commitments of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In the classic “Chariots of Fire,” which won the Oscar for best picture, the Olympic runner and future missionary Liddell is repeatedly shown preaching, parsing scripture and discussing the beliefs that led to his pivotal decision not to run in Sunday races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. “Try to imagine that movie without those scenes,” noted Metaxas, in a telephone interview.
The key “42” scene — when Robinson meets Rickey on Aug. 28, 1945 — could have depicted what actually happened at the time. Rickey pulled out a copy of a classic devotional work, “Life of Christ” by Giovanni Papini, and read aloud the passage in which the author discusses the Sermon on the Mount, including the reference that describes the “turn the other cheek” challenge as “the most stupefying” of the “revolutionary teachings” of Jesus.
It wouldn’t have taken long to read the scripture that so inspired Rickey and Robinson, said Metaxas. The Gospel of St. Matthew states: “Ye have heard it hath been said, An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 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.”
The reason, quite literally, that Rickey “choose Jackie Robinson was his strong moral character and his Christian faith,” said Metaxas. “There were other great black players out there. But could they have taken the stand that Jackie took? …
“That first meeting is the moment. That scene is the heart of this story and Jesus is right there in the middle of it.”
It would have been wonderful if “42” had also noted the strong faith of Robinson’s mother, Mallie. Then there was a crucial Methodist mentor named Karl Downs who taught the great ballplayer that obeying the command to “resist not evil” was not cowardly, but heroic, said Metaxas.
But movies are movies and, often, what matters the most are the visual images. Thus, it’s crucial that Helgeland didn’t include scenes in which Robinson is shown doing what he repeatedly said that he did day after day in those tense early years in major-league baseball — getting down on his knees, praying for strength and patience.
“I’m not saying that this is a horrible movie,” stressed Metaxas. “Yes, Robinson is shown closing his eyes for 0.87 seconds before he runs out onto the field and he’s hit by the occasional inspirational ray of sunlight. … But why are people afraid of showing a true American hero getting down on his knees and praying? What’s so scary about that?
“It’s like people think that prayer is a sign of weakness. Well, getting down on his knees didn’t make Jackie Robinson weak. That’s what helped make him strong.”