Jackie Robinson – A Story of Faith

Jackie Robinson – A Story of Faith April 15, 2024

Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated on April 15, 2024. Courtesy of Bluebird Banter

On April 15 baseball fans everywhere celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. All team players wear Jackie’s number 42 in honor of the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. While many people may know about Jackie’s story, what may not be as well known is how much Jackie’s faith played into his decision to be the first black player in Major League Baseball. The man who signed Jackie to a contract with the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, was also a man of great faith so God was front and center as both men worked together to break the color barrier.

Who Was Jackie Robinson?

Jackie was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia and was raised in Pasadena, California. Jackie was a four-sport athlete (football, baseball, basketball, and track) at UCLA, and was better known as a football player coming out of college. Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 and then court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated Army bus. After an internal review, Jackie was acquitted and discharged honorably in November 1944. Jackie signed with the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team in the Negro Leagues and that was where he caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their owner Branch Rickey. Rickey, also a man of faith, started out as a ball player and refused to play on Sundays throughout his career reserving Sundays for God. These two men who shared a love for God collaborated together and the impact was felt much further than just baseball.

“Maybe one day we will all wear 42. That way they won’t be able to tell us apart!”

Those words were spoken by Pee Wee Reese, shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jackie. This was a statement of solidarity. On Jackie Robinson Day, this becomes a reality for all teams on the schedule. The number 42 is retired for all Major League Baseball teams, and worn by all on Jackie Robinson Day.

How Did This Ever Work?

When you look at the situation, it’s hard to imagine how this worked. It was 1947 and racial segregation was the norm. Jackie, while a very talented athlete, also had a pretty good temper and was not afraid to fight if it came to that. His refusal to sit in the back of the segregated Army bus was an insight into Robinson as a black man willing to fight the system. So how did this work? The simple answer is God. One quote I have seen that really helps me to understand how God works in us:

“God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”

Just look at “Saul” who became “Paul” after his conversion. He persecuted the early Christians but was considered to be the most important person after Jesus in salvation history. Clearly, both Jackie and Rickey were chosen to be the ones to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In their first meeting in Brooklyn in August 1945 Rickey tested Robinson to see if he was capable of holding his temper as this was a key to success. In Ed Henry’s book “42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story” , Henry recounts the discussion in that first meeting:

“God is with us in this, Jackie, You know the Bible. It’s good simple Christianity for us to face realities and to recognize what we are up against. We can’t go out and preach and bust our heads against a wall. We’ve got to fight out our problems together with tact and commonsense.”

Rickey was adamant that Jackie not respond to the taunts and the abuse he would face as the first black man in the major leagues. Jackie had the tools to succeed, but he needed to “turn the other cheek” as Rickey told him. Jackie’s response was:

“Mr. Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks.”

At one point in the meeting, Rickey quoted from Giovanni Papini’s “Life of Christ”:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil. But whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The Rest of the Story

Once Rickey was satisfied that Jackie could handle the pressure, he signed him to a contract and Jackie spent his first year with the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year he joined the Dodgers and the rest is history. There were many times that Jackie had to deal with verbal and physical abuse on the field, but he kept to the promise he made to “turn the other cheek” and God was able to lead Jackie through these tumultuous times.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey upon Jackie signing with the Dodgers. Courtesy of Society for American Baseball Research

It is truly amazing what faith can do. In this situation, he took two very different people who had a common bond with their faith and He was able to change baseball and start the much-needed change in society. If you are interested in reading more, I recommend Ed Henry’s book“42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story”. Henry is able to go into detail around the challenges Jackie faced and how these challenges made him and others very different men.

All comments are encouraged and welcome. If it is important enough for you to comment, it is important enough to me to respond and I will respond as quickly as I can.

God Bless

About Dennis McIntyre
In my early years I was a member of the Methodist church where I was baptized as a child and eventually became a lector for the church. I always felt I was a very faith-filled person, but that something was missing. My wife is Catholic and my children were baptized as Catholic and this helped me to find what I was looking for - to be part of something so much bigger than myself walking together with Jesus. I was welcomed into the Catholic faith and received the sacraments as a full member of the Catholic Church in 2004. I am a Spiritual Director, and very active in ministry serving as a Lector and Eucharistic Minister in addition to providing spiritual direction. I have spent time working with the sick and the terminally ill in local hospitals and Hospice Care centers and found these ministries to be very difficult, but extremely rewarding. You can read more about the author here.
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