April 15 marked 75 years since Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball during the modern era, initially playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was 28 in 1947, considered old for a rookie in any professional sport, but when Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field he knew he belonged on the diamond. He wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate him.
Most importantly, he knew that he was bearing the burden of the “Negro race,” as African Americans were referred to during the Jim Crow period. Robinson stepping up to the plate was not only for the chance to play the game considered the country’s greatest pastime but to exemplify the noble ideal of racial integration and equal opportunity.
I always like to say that Robinson was fortunate to be in the right place historically when Dodgers President Branch Rickey was looking for a Black ballplayer. Black soldiers who had returned from World War II kindled a vigorous debate regarding the egalitarian principles of the nation. The Black press had launched the Double V campaign, which stood for victory against racism and discrimination at home and victory against the Axis powers. Black sportswriters like the Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith adapted the campaign to organized baseball, arguing that if Black men could fight for the rights and freedoms of America abroad then Black players should be able to compete with Whites.
Even newspaper writers outside of the U.S. pointed out the hypocrisy of Jim Crow roots in baseball segregation. Dink Carroll, a columnist for Canada’s Montreal Gazette, wrote in 1945 that “(m)any Americans have criticized baseball for drawing the color line, and have argued that it couldn’t truly be called America’s national game because of this discrimination.”
This “discrimination” was also rooted in the bigotry of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, an unwritten rule that banned Black players from 1899 until the fall of 1945, when Rickey signed Robinson to play for the Montreal Royals, one of the Dodgers’ minor league teams in the International League. Rickey definitely had some gumption to take on Robinson with most Major League organizations content to fill their rosters like it was still the late 19th century.
I view Rickey as a visionary and a pragmatist in this regard. He could foresee that America was inching toward civil rights for Blacks, and he also knew that many Blacks who had discretionary income would be willing to spend it to watch one of their own rise up to the ranks of the Majors. In one of the beginning scenes of the Robinson biopic “42,” Rickey explains to two of his assistants that “New York’s full of Negro baseball fans. Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green. Every dollar is green. I don’t know who he is or where he is, but he’s coming.”
And Robinson eventually came, chosen by Rickey due to having played in an integrated setting as a standout athlete at UCLA. Lettering in baseball, football, basketball and track and field, Robinson was still known as one of the country’s best all-around athletes several years out of college. Rickey was also impressed by Robinson’s military background and for being known to, as stated in “42,” “resent segregation.” However, I believe what really sealed the deal for Rickey regarding Robinson was their shared faith in God. Both men were devout Methodists, and Rickey later said of Robinson that “he has had an almost Christ-like taste of turning the other cheek.”
Of all the tributes that have been given to Robinson throughout the years, not much has been mentioned regarding how he had to lean heavily on his faith when his life, and the life of his wife Rachel, were on the line every time he walked out of the dugout. In their 2017 book “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero,” authors Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb include an interview that Robinson gave to a reporter describing how he kneeled at his bed and prayed every night. “It’s the best way to get closer to God,” Robinson said, and humorously added that kneeling was also a great technique for fielding ground balls.
Kneeling got Robinson through the racist berating he suffered from White fans during the beginning of his career, and it enabled him to get past his emotions and frustrations. Through his resilience and faith to continue playing a game that so many loved, he caused our country to “touch base” with race relations and truly examine what it means to be an American.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at [email protected] @JjSmojc