Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, the shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, first met the morning of August 28, 1945, in Rickey’s fourth-floor office at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn, New York. Clyde Sukeforth, a Brooklyn scout, told Robinson that Rickey was interested in signing the ballplayer for a Black team he was organizing, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers.
Rickey’s interest in a Black team, however, was a smokescreen to hide his intention of ending the national pastime’s color barrier by identifying talented players in Black baseball. His scouts recommended Robinson and other ballplayers for the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.1 Rickey had examined every part of Robinson’s life, including his time at UCLA, where he had been a four-sport athlete; in the US Army, where he had been court-martialed for protesting after he had been sent to back of a bus; and with the Monarchs in the Negro leagues.2
Rickey was impressed with Robinson’s athleticism but was worried about reports of the ballplayer’s temper and whether he could control it in response to what would be an unceasing amount of physical and emotional abuse from fans and players on opposing teams. If Robinson lost his temper, it would give his critics reason to confirm their belief that Blacks should not be allowed in the game.
“I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back,” Rickey told Robinson.
Rickey wanted to find out for himself how Robinson would respond to such indignities. He decided to test Robinson. Rickey took off his sport coat and transformed himself into a bigoted White clerk refusing Robinson a room in a Whites-only hotel; a White waiter in a restaurant denying Robinson service and calling him “boy”; and an opposing ballplayer who, as Robinson later remember, criticized “my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable.” And finally, Rickey was a foul-mouthed basestealer sliding hard into Robinson with his metal spikes high in the air. Rickey then swung his fist at Robinson’s head, calling him a racist epithet.3
Rickey then opened a book published in the 1920s, Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ, and read Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mountain in the Gospel of Matthew: “You 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 thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Robinson knew the Gospel and knew what was required of him.
“I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey. Is that it?” he replied.4
The meeting between the two Methodists, Rickey and Robinson, ultimately transformed baseball and America itself.
“Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist,” Rickey says. “You can’t go wrong.” The exchange is included in 42, the movie starring Chadwick Boseman, as Robinson, and Harrison Ford as Rickey.
What is often overlooked in books, articles, documentaries, and movies about Robinson’s life is that it is also a religious story. His faith in God, as he often said, carried him through the pain and anguish of integrating the major leagues.
Michael Long and I wrote about Robinson and his faith in the 2017 book Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, which was published by Westminster John Knox Press.5
The book begins with Robinson’s birth on January 31, 1919. As Jackie’s mother, Mallie, held her newborn son, she looked at her husband, Jerry, her brother, and her brother-in-law trying to make “sugar teats” – lard and sugar wrapped in cheesecloth to resemble nipples that would ease the baby’s assimilation into the world.
Mallie slowly shook her head as she watched the hapless men spill most of the lard on the floor and then whispered a blessing to Jackie. “Bless you, my boy,” she said. “For you to survive all this, God will have to keep his eye on you.”6
Shortly after Jackie’s birth, Jerry Robinson hopped a train with another woman. Mallie found herself alone to support five children in rural Cairo, Georgia, in the hostile South, where Blacks had few opportunities, if any, to improve their standing, and any Black who confronted racial injustice ran the risk of ending up in jail, beaten, or lynched.7
In May 1920, Rachel moved her family to Pasadena, California, where she repeatedly told Jackie and his four siblings that God would take care of them.8 Jackie, however, did not yet have his mother’s faith or the strength to turn the other cheek. The Robinsons were the only Black family living on Pepper Street and their White neighbors made no effort to welcome them. When Jackie was 8, a girl who lived across Pepper Street from the Robinsons, called him a nigger. Jackie yelled back at her that she was “nothing but a cracker.” The girl’s father came outside the house and threw a rock at Jackie, who returned fire with a rock of his own.9
As a teenager, Jackie refused to go with his mother to Scott Methodist Church. He belonged to a neighborhood gang, the Pepper Street Gang, which consisted not of violent boys and men as the word conjures up today but of boys who shoplifted from local grocers and got into fights with other teens.10
The boys’ petty crimes got them in trouble with the police. This increased Mallie’s concern about her son. She expressed his worries to the Rev. Karl Downs, the young minister at Scott Methodist. Downs found Robinson on a Pasadena street corner, told him to come see him, and persuaded him to come to church.11
Arnold Rampersad wrote in his biography of Robinson that Downs, who was just seven years older, became a good friend and a father figure to Robinson. His impact on Robinson was particularly significant when it came to shaping the young man’s religion. Rampersad said that Downs became the channel through which religious faith “finally flowed into Jack’s consciousness and was finally accepted there, if on revised terms, as he reached manhood,” Rampersad said. “Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world.”12
At Downs’s request, Robinson began teaching Sunday school – even on the mornings after football games he played at Pasadena Junior College and then at UCLA. “On Sunday mornings, when I woke up sore and aching because of a football game the day before, I yearned to just stay in bed. But no matter how terrible I felt, I had to get up.”13
Robinson made a habit of praying beside his bed before going to sleep. Robinson learned that exercising faith was not just about praying. Downs instilled in Robinson the pride in being a Black man in a White-dominated world and in standing up to social injustice in a world where there was so much racial injustice. Robinson carried himself with pride. He wore White shirts that showed off his dark skin.14
Rachel Isum, who was three years behind Robinson at UCLA, was attracted to Robinson’s handsome looks but also to his self-confidence. Robinson and Isum, who were both Methodists, began dating and remained a couple until his death in 1972.
Robinson’s faith gave him strength during his court-martial in the Army in 1944. He was drafted in March 1942, three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. Robinson, like most, if not every other Black soldier, faced racial discrimination in the Army. Bases were largely segregated but segregation was prohibited on military buses.
While stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, a bus driver ordered Robinson to the back of a bus. Robinson knew he didn’t have to move and did not move. An argument followed. The base assistant provost conducted an inquiry, interviewing the bus driver, White passengers, and White MPs, but ignoring Robinson. Robinson, who felt he was not given the respect demanded of an officer, interrupted the questioning. He was accused of not showing proper respect to a commandeering officer. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to a military prison. As Robinson sat in shackles in the courtroom, he relied on his faith in God, remembering his mother’s words. “You are a child of God, made in God’s image. Because God is there, nothing can go wrong with you,” she had told him. “You can allow yourself to take risks because you just know that the Lord will not allow you to sink so far that you can’t swim.”15
Robinson was acquitted of all charges.
By the time of the acquittal, Robinson’s battalion had left for Europe, where it fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. By confronting racial discrimination at Fort Hood, he was prevented from going abroad where he might have been injured or killed. Robinson was discharged and began playing in the segregated Negro leagues, where he was playing when Branch Rickey was searching for the right player to break baseball’s color barrier.
By confronting racial discrimination in the Army, he would be available to confront racial discrimination in baseball.
Robinson did not like playing in Negro leagues. He did not like the catch-as-catch-all playing schedule or the constant traveling where they might play games in two different cities on the same day and couldn’t stay in Whites-only hotels or eat in Whites-only restaurants.
He did not drink alcohol or chase women as many of his teammates did. Robinson openly scorned his whiskey-drinking and promiscuous teammates, once tossing a glass of scotch into a burning fireplace to demonstrate the lethality of liquor. He stunned his teammates by telling them he was waiting until marriage to have sex. “His sense of self was tightly wound around core values of dignity and self-esteem, and he believed in God and the Bible,” Rampersad wrote about Robinson. “Absurdly or not, he drew a line in the dirt between himself and sin, and tried not to cross it.”16
As influential as Karl Downs was in Robinson’s life, no one had a more profound impact on Robinson than Rickey. Rickey too owed his strong sense of faith to his mother, Emily, who taught him stories from the Bible. Rickey biographer Lee Lowenfish said Emily Rickey’s stories from Scripture reinforced in her son “the belief that there was a right way and a wrong way to life.”17 This meant that God came first to Rickey, whose religious devotion was such that he didn’t attend baseball games on Sundays.
Rickey and Robinson forever changed baseball and society on October 23, 1945, when the Montreal Royals, the Triple-A team in the Brooklyn organization, announced it had signed Robinson. Robinson knew that much of White America would judge all Blacks by how well he played and how well he comported himself. If he failed in either way, his failure reflected badly on all Blacks.
Robinson’s first test came when Jackie and Rachel, having just married, left Southern California for the Deep South, where Jackie would try to win a spot on the Montreal roster during spring training in Florida. The Robinson were bumped from two planes and replaced by White passengers. Shortly after they boarded a bus near Pensacola, a bus driver, calling Jackie “boy,” ordered the newlyweds to the back of the bus. Jackie turned his cheek both times.18
Robinson was chased out of Sanford, Florida, by the Ku Klux Klan. A number of cities refused to allow the integrated Montreal team to play. Robinson struggled with his hitting and he injured his throwing arm. Robinson played his first game of the spring in Daytona Beach on Sunday, March 17.19
Black ministers gave sermons about Robinson that morning and asked their parishioners to pray for him. When services ended, Blacks, in their Sunday clothes, walked to the ballpark.20
What happened in Daytona Beach repeated itself elsewhere in cities where Robinson played. “I know how wonderful it felt on a number of occasions, when a Negro minister approached me at the ball club and said, ‘You know, I cut my sermon short today so the people could get out of church early and get to the ball park to root for you,’” Robinson said. “My minister friends tell me that when the average minister cuts down his sermon, he is making one of the greatest sacrifices known to man.” Robinson credited Black ministers for his success. “I owe so much to the Negro ministers, and it is a debt I never intend to forget.”21
Robinson played the 1946 season with the Montreal Royals and was then promoted to the Dodgers the following spring. He knew that if he succeeded in the major leagues, he would change the way a lot of Whites thought about Blacks. If he succeeded, it would mean that other Blacks would get opportunities that were now closed to them. If he could overcome racial discrimination, then others could, too.22
No athlete ever faced either the pressure or abuse that Robinson did when he took the field for the first time in a Brooklyn uniform on April 15, 1947. Robinson clearly understood the stakes at play. Robinson knew Rickey could only do so much and that his own success depended on his own ability, but also on luck and fate. “His religion had taught him that the line between confidence and Satanic pride is a fine one; and chance – a twisted ankle, a turned knee – might yet intervene to reassert the inscrutable ways of Providence,” Rampersad wrote. “The drama would unfold; he would be both spectator and the man at the plate; God would decide the outcome.”23
Robinson did not merely endure in the face of constant death threats, opposing pitchers throwing at him, baserunners spiking him, or fans screaming the ugliest of racial epithets; he thrived. His faith formed in him an indomitable spirit. Robinson promised Rickey he would respond to his detractors by turning the other cheek, and he did.
“In observing that trust,” Rickey said, “he has had an almost Christ-like taste of turning the other cheek.”25
Robinson continued with his nightly ritual of praying, once telling a reporter about his faith in God and his nightly ritual of kneeling at his bedside. “It’s the best way to get closer to God,” Robinson said, and then the second baseman added with a smile, “and a hard-hit groundball.”
After Robinson retired from baseball, he wrote newspaper columns for the New York Post and the Amsterdam News in New York. Many of the columns are collected in the book Beyond Home Plate, which is edited by Michael Long. In one column, Robinson compared his own experience with “turning the other cheek” with the nonviolent confrontation of the civil-rights movement espoused by his friend, Martin Luther King Jr. “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.”26
CHRIS LAMB is chair of the journalism and public-relations department at Indiana University- Indianapolis. He is the author of 11 books, including Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training; Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball; Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography; and, most recently, Sports Journalism: A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology.
1 Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 373-374. Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 125-126.
25 Wendell Smith, “Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 28, 1948. Quoted in Long and Lamb, 98.
26 Chris Lamb, “Jackie Robinson: Faith in Himself and in God,” Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2013.
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/research-collection4_350x300.jpg300350sabr/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngsabr2021-12-21 13:36:172021-12-21 13:36:17Jackie Robinson’s Faith Sustained Him During Unrelenting Turmoil