Jackie Robinson

Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

A lot has been said and written about Jackie Robinson. The baseball great — famous for breaking baseball’s color barrier — was known for many things. Robinson’s athletic abilities, courage in the face of racism and the dignity with which he went about it all remain the focal points.

What is often ignored, and even forgotten, was Robinson’s Christian faith.

This past January 31 marked the day the trailblazing Robinson would have turned 100. He died at age 53, meaning that he’s been gone almost as long as he lived. Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform — that now-iconic No. 42 emblazoned across his back — at Ebbets Field and how his relationship with Branch Rickey, the team’s general manager, forever changed race relations in the United States.

“I think there are different explanations why his faith has been ignored. One of them is that Robinson — unlike Rickey — was private about his religion. It wasn’t something he talked a lot about,” said Chris Lamb, who co-authored a book in 2017 with Michael Long entitled Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography. “The book of Matthew quotes Jesus as telling us to avoid praying publicly. Secondly, Robinson’s significance comes more in his work in baseball and in civil rights and not in religion. That said, he couldn't have achieved what he did without his faith and his wife Rachel.”

The centennial of Robinson’s birth (and the many events associated with the celebration that will culminate in December with the opening of a museum in his honor in New York City) has allowed Americans of all ages to recall Robinson’s great achievements in the diamond — including helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series and having his number retired by every Major League Baseball team in 1997 — and the impact he would have on ending segregation and helping to spur the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53.

Robinson’s famous quote — one etched on his tombstone at his Brooklyn gravesite in Cypress Hills Cemetery — reads: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

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Hailing the valor of number 42 -- with something crucial missing from the story

 Hailing the valor of number 42 -- with something crucial missing from the story

Star documentary producer Ken Burns’s latest PBS show this week was a two-parter hailing Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), one of history’s great African American heroes -- period.

Years before the civil rights movement, Robinson famously broke the color line not only in baseball but all major league athletics, since professional football, basketball and hockey remained all-white years after his Brooklyn Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947. All MLB teams annually honor him by wearing his number 42 on that date.

Before addressing the main theme here, a Dodgers fan of that era would like to list some facts: Named the first Rookie of the Year in 1947. In 1949 the National League’s Most Valuable Player ranking #1 in both batting average (.342) and stolen bases (37), and  #2 in hits (203) and runs batted in (124). All-Star in six of his 10 seasons. In the top 1 percent of career batting averages at .311. The league’s leading second basemen in turning double plays four years running and in three of those years also the leader in fielding accuracy. 

In other words this was one fabulous athlete, not to mention he was the first man to letter in four varsity sports at U.C.L.A. (adding basketball, football and track to baseball). He had to be superior to survive vicious racism and threats hurled at him in the early phase with the Dodgers, as Burns’ telecast and the fine 2013 movie “42” depict.

Both the TV and film treatments portray the deep Christianity of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president who took the big chance of hiring Robinson from double motives of racial justice and baseball prosperity. In the movie Harrison Ford, impersonating Rickey, quips to an advisor worried about backlash over a black ballplayer: “I’m a Methodist. Jackie’s a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”

The movie said little about Robinson’s own religion and Burns provided nothing.

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