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Over the past few weeks of lent, we have looked at parallels in the world of baseball and the world of Christ. This week, let’s go back to one of the pivotal figures in baseball history, Jackie Robinson. If you don’t already know, Jacki Robinson, #42, was the first African American to play in major league baseball. Just as important are the stories of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed him, forever breaking the baseball color barrier, and Pee Wee Reese, a team mate in Brooklyn.
In a 2013 article appearing on desiringgod.org, David Mathis recounts several stories of Jackie and the Amazing Grace he demonstrated in his first few years in baseball. He describes the relationship between these two men and their faith below:
Many tellings of the Robinson-Branch story omit the importance of their shared Christian faith, but a few biographers have endeavored to draw this out.
Robinson was a Christian [and] his Christian faith was at the very center of his decision to accept Branch Rickey’s invitation to play for the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers. . . . Branch Rickey himself was a Bible-thumping Methodist whose faith led him to find an African American ballplayer to break the color barrier. . . .[A]t the center of one of the most important civil rights stories in America [lies] two men of passionate Christian faith. (Metaxas)
Branch’s strategy for de-segregation was “non-retaliation” — a precursor to the vision of non-violence to come later in the Civil Rights Movement. But it would not just do to try to follow Jesus’s pattern. Branch was looking for someone with deep faith and proven character. Nothing less than emotionally excruciating work lay ahead. When Branch and Robinson met for the first time to explore the possibility, Branch grilled him for hours and made him commit to three years of non-retaliation. Rickey . . . pointed him to the biblical account of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Rickey told Robinson, “We can’t fight our way through this, Robinson. We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners. No umpires. Very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid many fans will be hostile.”
Hostile they were, but as commemorated in the statue below, teammates stood by Jackie during the hostility. 10 time all star and hall of famer, Pee Wee Reese, is as well known for his support of Jackie Robinson as he is for his playing performance.
As Eric Metaxas puts it in his book,Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness:
“The heart of the Jackie Robinson story,” says Metaxas, is that “he changed America by successfully living out, both on and off the baseball field, the revolutionary and world-changing words of Jesus.”
What made all the difference was both Branch’s recognition of the power of Jesus’s model of non-retaliation in Matthew 5:38–41, and Robinson’s grace-given ability to echo the almost superhuman pattern of Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
That is a model we can all strive for, both on and off of the field.