Mark Figley: “42 Faith” — a different view of Jackie Robinson

April 15 marked the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. And although this was a crowning achievement that forever sealed Robinson’s legacy, any serious student of the game also recognizes the immense emotional toll it took on him.

Many stories have been written about Robinson and his experience in breaking baseball’s color barrier, yet none have done it better than Ed Henry’s inspiring, “42 Faith.” Henry’s unique perspective on Robinson is based on a compilation of, before now, undiscovered sermons, interviews with his family and friends, and an unpublished Robinson manuscript. The end result is a story which reveals the degree to which both Robinson and Dodger GM Branch Rickey, the man who signed him, were led by their strong Christian faith to succeed together in making history.

Henry writes that while Robinson was not outspoken about his faith in God, he was instilled with it as a child by his mother. This religious conviction was further reinforced by Rickey, a devout Methodist. Robinson’s faith eventually helped him overcome not just taunts and threats from opposing players and other opponents, but insults from some of his own teammates as well.

In another discovery by Henry, an unpublished Robinson manuscript from the early 60’s suggests that his faith was instrumental to him in overcoming the trials associated with his challenging ordeal. Yet, although parts of Robinson’s “My Greatest Day,” were published in 1965, the portions dealing with his faith were strangely left out. Luckily, the entire manuscript was included in the personal papers Robinson’s wife, Rachel, donated to the Library of Congress in 2001 and can now be read in the library’s Manuscript Division in Washington, D.C.

Contained in the manuscript, Robinson tells of being challenged as a teenager by his minister to accept the fact that God was the ultimate force for good. This faith enabled Robinson to break away from gang involvement as a youth and to later rise above the constant hatred he faced in breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Adding authenticity to Robinson, long-time teammate and Dodger pitching great Carl Erskine reveals how Robinson’s faith was instrumental in his mission, noting that athletic talent and desire could only take him so far. The proof of this was in “the outcome.” Erskine also relates that Rickey purposely invoked religion at his first face-to-face meeting with Robinson on August 28, 1945. Rickey, who had also been instilled with faith by his mother as a youth, knew he could connect with Robinson through scripture. So he began reading to him about turning the other cheek. Thus, Robinson’s “spiritual strength” was rekindled. This is supported in “My Greatest Day,” wherein Robinson credits God and Rickey with helping him control his anger for the greater good. Robinson would later write, “Somebody else might have done a better job, but God and Branch Rickey made it possible for me to be the one.”

Still, at the beginning of Rickey’s “experiment,” Robinson honesty questioned whether he could stand up to the pressure of the moment. He had faced discrimination his entire life; including being banned from his local swimming pool and YMCA as a child.

And contrary to what has generally been written, Rickey too had second thoughts about his plan; despite the fact that he felt it was morally right to integrate the game. The pressure from the baseball establishment was intense, and prior to finally making the decision to sign Robinson in 1945, Rickey sought the counsel of a minister regarding the matter. Ultimately, he determined that God had a plan as well.

Lest Robinson be confused for a saint, during his debut season in a game at Busch Stadium, he was playing first base against St. Louis. While covering the bag on an infield grounder beaten out by Cardinal great Enos Slaughter for a hit, Robinson was spiked on the ankle and bloodied. Slaughter then gave him an ugly stare, while Robinson said nothing. A few seasons later, St. Louis visited Ebbet’s Field, where this time Slaughter hit a double sharply off the outfield wall. Robinson was now playing second base as Slaughter slid toward the bag. Taking the throw, Robinson slammed the ball into Slaughter’s face knocking out three of his teeth in the process. As Slaughter looked up, Robinson said, “I never forget.” Even Jackie had his limits as some would discover, yet he tolerated far more than most normal men.

Ed Henry’s “42 Faith” cites numerous examples where Jackie Robinson’s character was tested. Yet, it is also exceptional in showing the hidden sides of two men, who despite their human imperfections, came together through mutual faith to accomplish what neither could have done alone. And for this, it’s much more than just another book on baseball, but one with a powerful message for us all.

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By Mark Figley

Guest Columnist

Mark Figley is a political activist and guest columnist from Elida. Reach him a [email protected]