Entertainment

Robinson and Rickey: The Two Men Who Integrated American Sports

Their powerful faith in God gave these individuals the strength to do the impossible — which Hollywood, of course, ignored

It’s a great scene from a movie about two men who changed American civic life. The cigar-chomping general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), is negotiating deal points in his office with a new player, Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman). This is back when negotiating a player’s contract consisted of management setting the price — and players accepting it.

But this was no normal negotiation. The only point of contention wasn’t salary or a bonus. It was character.

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“Can you control your temper?” Rickey asks the young Robinson. “The Dodgers check into a hotel, you’re worn out from the road, some clerk won’t give you the pen to sign in with, says, ‘We got no room for ya’ here, boy, even in the coal bin where you belong.’ The team stops at a restaurant, waiter won’t take your order. ‘Didn’t ya see the sign on the door, no n****** allowed.’ What are ya’ gonna do then? Fight ’em? Ruin all my plans?”

There’s a long pause.

‘Answer me, you black son of a b****,” Rickey screams at Robinson.

Robinson rises out of anger. But then he quickly realizes Rickey is testing him, though he’s not sure why.

“You want a player who’s got the guts to fight back?” Robinson asks.

“No, I want a player who’s got the guts to not fight back,” Rickey replies.

He explains to the young Robinson — who was born on Jan. 31, 1919 — that racists are not only in the South but in Brooklyn, Boston and Philadelphia, too, and that none of them will like that he’s on the field, and that they’ll do anything to drive him off. He explains to the ballplayer that his enemies will be out in force to disrupt and distract him — and that he can’t strike back on their terms.

Moments later, in a pivotal scene in the movie — and in the lives of these two men — Rickey drives his point home one last time.

“Like our Savior, you better have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?” Rickey thunders.

“You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. I’ll give you the guts,” Robinson replies.

It was a powerful scene, but there was a gaping hole in it — as in the movie (2013’s “42,” written and directed by Brian Helgeland). There were also some serious unanswered questions.

To which “Savior” was Rickey referring?

Why did Rickey choose to integrate baseball?

Why did this young black man enter such a sacred pact and not another in the Negro Leagues?

And why did Robinson agree?

That unnamed Savior, by the way, is Jesus Christ. He was Branch Rickey’s Savior. And Jackie Robinson’s, too.

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Why would a movie about these two great men gloss over such an important fact? For the same reasons Hollywood glossed over Johnny Cash’s Christian faith in “Walk the Line” and Louis Zamperini’s in “Unbroken” — which, by the way, should have been called “Broken” because director Angelina Jolie left out what “unbroke” Louis — an encounter with Jesus Christ at a Billy Graham crusade.

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Leaving Jesus Christ out of the lives of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson is like leaving Apple computers out of the lives of Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak. Or the Mafia out of John Gotti’s and Al Capone’s lives.

To answer those earlier questions, we need to first understand why Branch Rickey took it upon himself to be the first front-office leader in Major League Baseball — in all of American professional sports — to field a black player. And remember, this was back when the NFL was barely a league and the NBA even less so. Baseball wasn’t just the biggest national sport; it was the only national sport.

And Brooklyn wasn’t exactly a hotbed of cultural sensitivity. Fierce racism existed between the many ethnic groups crowded in and around Ebbets Field in Flatbush. Rickey was taking a huge risk with his ballclub. With his career. With his life.

So what was the source of Rickey’s calling — and his courage?

“For starters, he was a Bible-thumping Methodist who refused to attend games on Sunday,” wrote author Eric Metaxas in a piece in USA Today. “He sincerely believed it was God’s will that he integrate baseball, and he saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation, as Lincoln had done.”

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The legendary sportscaster Red Barber told the story of how he first learned about Rickey’s intention to bring a black player to Brooklyn. “It was a shock to me when Mr. Rickey told me, in confidence, that he was going to bring [in] a black player,” Barber recalled. “He told me this before he ever knew Robinson was coming. He told me this in March of 1945, and he didn’t come [into contact] with Robinson himself until later that year.”

“In their historic meeting,” Metaxas explained, “Rickey pulled out a book by Giovanni Papini, titled ‘Life of Christ.’ He opened to the passage about the Sermon on the Mount and read it aloud.”

That passage in Papini’s book was from a book largely unfamiliar to many creative types in Hollywood: the Bible. The words can be found in 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.”

Just a bit later, Christ had this to say to His followers in the same sermon:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

Rickey chose Robinson because he, too, believed in those words. Rickey and Robinson both believed that turning the other cheek wasn’t merely a practical thing to do, but the right thing to do, Metaxas explained.

“Rickey chose Robinson because of the young man’s faith and moral character,” he wrote. “There were numerous other Negro League players to consider, but Rickey knew integrating the racist world of professional sports would take more than athletic ability. The attacks would be ugly, and the press would fuel the fire. If the player chosen were goaded into retaliating, the grand experiment would be set back a decade or more.”

Rickey deliberately sought out Jackie Robinson because he was looking for a player whose behavior — on and off the field — would be as exemplary as his athletic performance. He knew it would take faith in a higher power to do it.

And where was Robinson’s faith cultivated?

“I believe that he derived his sense of himself — his life mission, and the courage to carry it out — from his mother, Mallie Robinson,” Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s wife, told a reporter. “His mother was an extraordinary woman — courageous, determined, extremely religious, and self-reliant. She had been a sharecropper in Georgia. Her husband left her with five small children. So she packed them up and took them to California, all alone. Mallie managed to purchase a home for the family from her salary as a domestic worker. And she created an environment that was filled with positive values, as well as love.”

Through it all, Robinson’s mom emphasized to her children the deep belief that God would always take care of them.

“I never stopped believing that,” Jackie Robinson told reporters years later.

When Robinson was a young man, he was involved in some fights and a few brushes with the law, too. All were prompted by his reaction to racial slights and attacks.

In the book “Jackie Robinson: A Biography,” author Arnold Rampersad described how the young Robinson was rescued from a life on the streets and mentored by Rev. Karl Downs. Downs not only wound up being a father figure to Robinson, but he also brought Robinson closer to God — closer to his spiritual father.

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It was through Downs’ mentorship and instruction that faith seeped into Robinson’s consciousness. With it came the same personal moral code taught by most white and black Protestants in the early 20th century.

“Faith in God began to register in Robinson as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and also a pragmatic way to negotiate the world,” wrote Rampersad.

As an athlete at UCLA — Robinson was the only athlete in the college’s history to letter in four sports — he was a notoriously clean-living guy, openly averting the drinking and carousing that often accompanies college life, and publicly disclosing that he was saving sex for marriage.

Those character traits, those daily habits — and his deeply held religious beliefs — all contributed to Rickey’s decision to choose Robinson over all the other players to integrate the league. It didn’t hurt that Robinson was also a remarkable athlete and would go on to become one of the best hitters and base stealers in the entire league.

Most remarkable about Robinson’s faith as the years went on was how it allowed him to see all the positive things in his life, and the good people around him. In his book “42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story,” author Ed Henry, now of Fox News, spent a good deal of time explaining how Robinson managed to remain happy and hopeful despite the hate and adversity around him.

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Though he was the focus of a barrage of racist insults and death threats throughout his career, Robinson still managed to say these words and mean them: “This country and its people, black and white, have been good to me.”

Robinson’s faith was not of the pious variety or a self-righteous kind. He knew his own limits and deficits. “I am not the most religious person in the world,” he noted in his unpublished manuscript. “I believe in God, in the Bible and in trying to do the right thing as I understand it.”

In a 1950 newspaper interview, Robinson emphasized his faith in God, and he talked openly about his habit of kneeling at his bedside every night to pray. “It’s the best way to get closer to God,” he said, and added with a smile, “and a hard-hit ball.”

“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing,” wrote Rev. Martin Luther King. Robinson’s prayer life not only sustained him through hard times, it enabled him to bring a touch of God’s grace and mercy to a world in deep need of both.

Robinson’s earthly athletic talents didn’t hurt, either. He played some epic baseball in his career in Brooklyn as the team’s leader. In his 10 seasons, the Dodgers won six National League pennants. In 1949, he batted .342 to win the league title.

Branch Rickey died on Dec. 9, 1965, at the age of 83 in the middle of a speech he was giving while being elected into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53, of a heart attack, on Oct. 24, 1972.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Robinson said not long before he passed.

He and Branch Rickey, through their love of God and baseball, changed American life forever.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

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