By Charles W. Colson
At New York's Shea Stadium, two years ago, 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 had worn that number-the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947: Jackie Robinson.
February is Black History Month, and our kids have been hearing a lot about Robinson's quiet dignity in the face of racial bigotry on the ball field. But what many of them are not hearing is the source of Robinson's ability to turn the other cheek: It was his faith in Jesus Christ.
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.
But it was also at UCLA that Robinson began to encounter the forces that would free him from some of his rage. One was a 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 his life. 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 ball field 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 him."
Robinson left baseball in 1956 and spent the rest of his life working in the civil-rights movement. Despite personal tragedies and setbacks, Robinson's faith in Christ never wavered.
As Black History Month ends, make sure your own children learn about Jackie Robinson. But beware: Some biographies of Robinson written for children don't even mention his Christian faith. Our kids deserve to know the full story of the hero who broke baseball's color barrier.
The man whose faith helped him overcome racial prejudice to make baseball history and become a great national legend.
Copyright (c) 1999 Prison Fellowship Ministries
Any copying, re-transmission, distribution, printing, or other use of BreakPoint must set forth the following credit line, in full, at the conclusion of the portion of BreakPoint that is used:
Copyright (c) 1999 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. "BreakPoint with Chuck Colson" is a radio ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.