At New York's Shea Stadium last spring, baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that
number 42 would be retired by the major leagues forever. It was a mark of honor for the
man who wore that number, the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947: Jackie
February was Black History Month, and our kids heard a lot about Robinson?s quiet
dignity in the face of racial bigotry on the ballfield. But what many of them did not hear
about is the source of Robinson's ability to turn the other cheek: his faith in Jesus
Robinson was born in 1919 into a culture steeped in racism. And from early childhood it
drove Robinson mad. Historian Jackson Lears, writing in the New Republic, says Robinson
had "a reputation as a mad brawler, always ready to smash in the teeth of any white
man who insulted him." Later, at UCLA, he gained a reputation as a thug.
It was also at UCLA that Robinson began to encounter the forces that would free him
from some of his rage. One was a young nursing student named Rachel Isum, whom he later
married. The other was a black minister named Karl Downs whose hard-hitting sermons taught
Robinson that Christianity was not a synonym for racial submission.
By 1945 Robinson had developed a firm conviction that God had an important purpose for
him. That purpose became clear when Robinson was summoned to the office of Branch Rickey,
general manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was determined to make history by putting
the first black player on a major league team. But first Rickey made certain Robinson
understood what he would face: everything from racial epithets to physical assaults to
hotel clerks refusing him accommodations.
Rickey challenged Robinson, telling him he was "looking for a ballplayer with guts
enough not to fight back"a phrase that has since become legendary. What is less well
known is that Rickey also handed Robinson a copy of a book by Giovanni Papini called The
Life of Christ. And he reminded Robinson of the words of Jesus:"Resist not evil: but
whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also"
By quoting Scripture, Lears writes, Rickey "was hitting Robinson in the heart,
invoking the Methodist Christianity that they shared"
Robinson's struggle began as soon as he walked out onto the ballfield wearing a Dodgers
uniform. During his ten years with the Dodgers, he endured racist remarks, death threats,
and unfair calls by umpires. But Robinson's faith helped him keep his anger in check.
Every night, he got on his knees and prayed for self-control.
"Through all the frustrations,' writes Lears, "his Christianity sustained
Robinson left baseball in 1956 and spent the rest of his life working in the
civil-rights movement. Despite personal tragedies and setbacks, Robinson never lost his
faith in Christ.
Next year during Black History Month, make sure your own children learn about Jackie
Robinson. But beware: Some biographies of Robinson written for children don't even mention
his faith. Our kids deserve to know the full story of the hero who broke baseball's color
The man whose faith helped him overcome racial prejudice to make baseball history and
become a great national legend.