Jim Crow began to die a slow, stubborn death in America on April 15, 1947. On that day, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson took the field as the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the team’s season opener against the Boston Braves. On that day, Robinson became the first black man to play in a Major League baseball game. On that day, the curtain that had barred hundreds of talented baseball players from participating in big leagues on the basis of skin pigmentation was torn in two.
Like the wall of communism that would crumble to dust in Berlin 42 years later, baseball’s barrier of separation became, on that day, a sad relic in the historical museum of a broken, cursed, and fallen world. Growing up in the American South in the 1970s, ground zero for the civil rights movement where race relations remained as volatile as nitroglycerin, every elementary child read in history textbooks of Robinson’s heroic, Martin Luther-like stand against racism.
We learned the facts: Branch Rickey, famed owner of the Dodgers, sought to revolutionize professional baseball by bringing in talented men from the “colored” or Negro Leagues. We learned that Rickey, a devout Methodist, chose Robinson because of the content of his character.
Robinson was man enough to withstand the grinding persecution that would certainly be aimed at the first black player in the white professional leagues.
We learned that events unfolded largely as predicted: Robinson was despised and rejected by many white players, most baseball owners. and white fans. But he was also loved by blacks and a relative handful of whites. And we learned that Robinson withstood the the ugly name-calling, the letters threatening his family’s health and safety, the beanballs aimed at his skull by racist pitchers, the message-sending slides of angry base runners that left Robinson’s legs bleeding and gashed by metal cleats, the barbs, the sarcasm and the open hatred of spiteful teammates like Kirby Higbe.
Robinson suffered, but he endured, and by his sacrifice, the gates of justice swung open and dozens of talented black athletes changed the landscape of baseball forever. We learned that after Robinson, former Negro League stars such as Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Satchel Paige, and Frank Robinson became household names, their uniform numbers, batting styles and pitching motions mimicked by white Little Leaguers in backyards and sandlots across the country.
A baseball-loving boy growing up among a baseball-mad culture in North Georgia, I wore the number 8 of my hero, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan. I flapped my back elbow up and down just like him when I batted. My father regaled me with stories of the Negro Leagues exploits of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (he saw them play in person) and argued with my uncles that Willie Mays was the best player in baseball history (I agree).
Story Behind the Story
We may have been told the story of Jackie Robinson, but we weren’t told the story behind the story. It is a compelling narrative known by relatively few Americans: Jackie Robinson’s heroism is a deeply Christian and gospel-picturing story.
Released several weeks ago, the much-anticipated movie depicting Robinson’s life, 42 (so-called for his uniform number, which is now retired forever from use by Major League Baseball) reveals the Christian context and gospel-centric nature of Robinson’s biography as seen through the lens of his rookie season, 1947. Rickey (played to perfection by Harrison Ford), a devout follower of Christ, signed Robinson because Robinson himself was a devoted follower of Christ. Early in the movie, partly based on Robinson’s excellent autobiography I Never Had It Made, viewers see Rickey’s first meeting with Robinson.
Rickey told Robinson that he signed him to break the color barrier because of his guts, to which Robinson asked, “You want a player who has got the guts to fight back?” Rickey replied, “No. I want a player who has got the guts not to fight back.” Robinson’s resolve is memorable: “Give me a uniform. Give me a number on my back, and I’ll give you the guts.”
The erudite Rickey’s warning does not repel Robinson: “Your enemy will be out in force. You cannot meet him on his own low ground.” Later, when Robinson endures torturous abuse at the hands of teammates (several, led by Higbe, signed a petition that they would go on strike rather than play alongside Robinson), and he is desperately trying to bridle his urge to fight back, Rickey told him, “You can’t give in to the urge to fight back. You have to turn the cheek like our Savior did.”
And by God’s grace, Robinson did.
And in so doing, Jackie Robinson’s baseball career recalled another man, the Ultimate Man, who arose from a racially disenfranchised people, who was cursed and spat upon, who was rejected by many, who had the guts not to fight back, who bore the curse in place of his people, who tore down the wall of separation so those formerly rejected could enter into the inner sanctum.
To be sure, Jackie Robinson’s story is a baseball story. It is a story of undaunted courage. It is one of the shining moments in the still-unfolding chronicles of the American experiment. But best of all, it is a story of substitution and sacrifice and redemption. Much like the Greatest Story Ever Told. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is before its shearers silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, ESV).