Heroes for the Books, Part 4: Jackie Robinson

By Saturday, May 02, 2015 , ,

And after a bit of a break, we’re back for the fourth installment of the “Heroes for the Books” series, which has featured biographies that are informative, encouraging, and inspiring. So far, I’ve talked about William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Eric Liddell. I’m convinced that we need to remember and emulate men and women from the past who lived fully and with conviction. While Wilberforce, More, and Liddell were not perfect, they showed great courage and used the positions entrusted to them to make a difference. Today, I want to introduce another man like this who, like Eric Liddell, is one of the men highlighted in Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography, 7 Men: And the Secret of their Greatness. As I’ve said, I could ramble forever about all of the men discussed in it, but I’ve picked two to keep it simple. Eric Liddell was one, and the other is Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major-league baseball. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve likely known of him for a while. Or you may have met him through the movie 42, which I also highly recommend. But Metaxas’ book tells Jackie Robinson’s story personally and with intensity. As I read, I got angry at the injustice he faced and marveled at the strength he showed. When I think about Jackie Robinson now, the phrase “quiet courage” comes to mind quickly. He exemplified it with truly remarkable humility and self-control, and he changed baseball and the American sports mindset because of it.

Jackie Robinson possessed athletic prowess from an early age. He pursued multiple sports throughout his teen years, and in college, he lettered in baseball, football, track, and basketball. He also received an officer commission upon the rise of World War II. Both in sports and in the army, he faced racial prejudice and malicious discrimination. He became known for his sharp tongue and abrupt temper. But simultaneously, a growing faith in God was teaching him that the proper response to injustice was not outrage, but winsomeness and love. He had no idea what he was being prepared for. In the early 1940s, the spitfire manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers was thinking hard about how to integrate major-league baseball. His name was Branch Rickey, and he maneuvered the situation with truly genius method. Just have to mention: in the movie 42, Harrison Ford plays this guy, and it was probably one of my favorite things about it. If you weren’t interested before, you should be now. You’re welcome. Moving on. So, Branch Rickey of course discovered Jackie Robinson in a detective manner and explained his dream of integration. Jackie was stunned, but willing. Rickey got to his primary question in truly poignant terms. I can’t improve upon the way Eric Metaxas narrates in 7 Men here: 

“What he meant, [Rickey] explained, was that if Jackie were to become major-league baseball’s first black player, he would be in for a tremendous amount of abuse, both verbal and physical.
Jackie said he was sure he could face up to whatever came his way. He wasn’t afraid of anyone and had been in any number of fistfights over the years when anyone had challenged him.

But Rickey had something else in mind. ‘I know you’re a good ballplayer,’ Rickey said. ‘What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.’ Rickey knew he meant something dramatically different from what Robinson was thinking, so he continued, ‘I’m looking,’ Rickey said, ‘for a ballplayer with guts enough *not to fight back.*’” (126)

As I read Jackie’s story in this biography, my modern eyes were opened to just how much guts that meant. The abuse he endured was truly ferocious and would be unthinkable to repeat in civilized conversation now. But through it all, he held to his commitment to never retaliate. By human standards, he would have had every right to hit and shout back, and there were certainly times that he came close. Not only did he suffer brutal verbal mistreatment, but opposing players also hit and kicked him, threw pitches into his head, and gashed his legs with their spikes. But miraculously, Jackie always held his temper, and he gave all the credit to God. The biography notes that every night, he would fall to his knees and beg the Lord for strength; he knew that what he had to do was impossible on his own. Matthew 5:38-41 was his theme –

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”

Jackie Robinson lived out “turn the other cheek” more literally than most of us can imagine now. As I read, I was amazed at his courage. In a culture that equates manliness with force and physical dominance, I was so refreshed to read about a man who is remembered precisely because he laid down his right to fight back. He demonstrated that courage and manhood also require forgiveness and gracious silence in the face of offense, and his countercultural attitude changed the face of sports and the country for the better.

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