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. (Click here to read an "On Religion" column by our own tmatt about the movie.)

Yet faith was a key to the valor by which Robinson could fend off continual abuse, avoid retaliation to foster integration, and excel on the diamond. We know this due to the 1997 biography by Arnold Rampersad, a former professor at Stanford and other universities. Eric Metaxas also highlights this in “Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness” (2013).

Robinson’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech said three people made his success possible: Rickey, his wife Rachel (still strong at 93 and a major personality in the TV show) and his mother Mallie, whose husband deserted the family when Robinson was an infant. After a move to Pasadena, Calif., Mallie became a stalwart at Scott Methodist Church.

Robinson strayed from church, Rampersad wrote, but then Scott’s personable young Pastor Karl Downs “led Jack back to Christ,” as a result of which an “emotional and spiritual poise such as he had never known at last entered his life.”

Robinson himself remarked, "There’s nothing like faith in God to help a fellow who gets booted around.” Downs became Robinson’s mentor and father figure through young adulthood, and later as a Texas college president hired him as athletic director between his discharge from the Army and entry into baseball. Downs died suddenly a year after Robinson joined the Dodgers.

The Religion Guy’s home church staged a 2013 Robinson tribute complete with a live band, poetry, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Rachel Robinson graciously sent a greeting to the event that included this significant statement: “Jack was a man of faith, and it was his unwavering belief in God that sustained us during the most challenging times.”

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