|Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson|
|Branch Rickey and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey|
The movie is commendably accurate. To be more true to life it would have to have been at least an R-rated film, because what the real Jackie Robinson had to endure was far worse than what was shown in the film. In August of 1946 following my discharge from the Navy I was invited to go on the road with the International League Orioles. I did not want to sign a contract at that time, as I was planning to return to Princeton for my senior year and wanted to be eligible to play on the baseball team. But I enjoyed pitching batting practice for the Orioles and working out with the team.
I was ashamed and disgusted, and I wished I were somewhere else, but there I was in an Oriole uniform, being tainted by the behavior of those foul-mouthed bench jockeys who were doing most of the shouting. A handful of players said nothing, and I wondered if they were feeling what I was feeling.
I have a vivid mental picture of Jackie’s face, as he ran that gauntlet of verbal abuse. He never once turned his head, but the resolute firmness of his jaw and his expressionless face, betrayed the fact that he was taking in every ugly word. Mr. Rickey had prepared him well, and my admiration for the man was as great as my disgust with those players I had once respected.
I saw Jackie play many times when he was with the Dodgers, and I heard Branch Rickey talk about him on more than one occasion. But I want to mention the one occasion I had the opportunity to spend some time with Jackie. On May 13, 1964, I had the pleasure of taping a radio show with Jackie, hosted by the National Council of Churches on NBC. We were part of a three-man panel moderated by former National League catcher-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola, on the topic “Morality in Sports.” Jackie was President of the NCC’s United Church Men at the time (not many fans know that Jackie held that position for three years), and I was then Pastor of the Oak Lane Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.
|Jackie Robinson as ABS|
sports announcer in 1965
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were both men of deep faith. I don’t think they would have been able to do what they did together if they hadn’t been. That dimension of Mr. Rickey’s character, especially, was sensitively and, I can testify, accurately portrayed. I got to know him through our mutual involvement in the early days of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Branch Rickey was instrumental in helping to launch that fledgling organization in 1955. He convened a group of Pittsburgh business men to hear a young basketball coach named Don McClanen share his dream of enlisting Christian athletes and coaches whose personal testimonies would inspire the youth of America to realize that, to use the words of the late Paul Dietzel, “You don’t have to be a sissy to go to church!” Sports Illustrated headlined it “Hero Worship Harnessed!”“
Mr. Rickey and his friends contributed several thousand dollars on the spot to enable McClanen, to quit his job as coach of the Eastern Oklahoma A and M basketball team in order to devote full time to launching the FCA, which today is the largest sports ministry in the world and the largest Christian campus ministry in the world. It is on more campuses than the next three largest campus ministries combined!
My first introduction to Branch Rickey, however, occurred several years earlier. As the newly appointed Business Manager of the Portsmouth Athletics Baseball Club in the Ohio-Indiana League, my first assignment was to attend a conference for baseball executives in Columbus, Ohio. One of the platform speakers that week was Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. He was the most inspiring speaker I had ever heard. He made everyone in the audience proud to be associated with professional baseball, and I was soaring on cloud nine as I contemplated the exciting career ahead of me.
I saw Mr. Rickey at various baseball gatherings over the next several years but I never dreamed that we would one day connect in a much deeper way through our association with the fledgling FCA. Nor did I imagine I would have to resist his incomparable persuasive powers, when I was trying to discern God’s will in deciding whether or not to accept the FCA National Board’s invitation to succeed my good friend Don McClanen as Executive Director.
Mr. Rickey’s used every argument he could think of in his effort to convince me to accept the position, and the truth is that I could not have imagined a calling I would have enjoyed more, combining my love of sports with my new-found faith in Christ. But I felt in my heart that God wanted me to stay where I was, indeed that God was testing my commitment to my ministry at Oak Lane, where our church was facing the challenge of a racially changing community.
I was thinking of that conversation with Branch Rickey, as I watched Harrison Ford demonstrating those same persuasive powers in the movie. Branch Rickey was a hard man to resist, because he was a man of deep faith and strong commitment, not to mention his dominant personality, his compelling rhetoric, and his admirable sense of purpose. He was a man of integrity, whose high principles erased any suspicion of an ulterior or self-serving motive. I felt that Harrison Ford’s impersonation of Branch Rickey captured all of those qualities.
I can say also that Mr. Rickey was a good listener, as well. I explained that under my pastoral leadership the elders of the Oak Lane Presbyterian Church had taken a strong stand to be an inviting, welcoming, inclusive congregation, against some very negative and vocal opposition, and I simply could not desert them. It was not the right time for me to leave, and I felt at the end of our intense exchange that Mr. Rickey understood that. He recognized that in trying to integrate our segregated pocket of Philadelphia I was involved in the same struggle as he had been in breaking Major League Baseball's restrictive color code.
Philadelphia didn't come off at all well in the movie, and I could certainly identify with that, for it reminded me of the bigotry and meanness I encountered from some members of our own formerly all-white congregation, not to mention many residents of our community. We received our share of anonymous hate mail and threatening phone calls. White fright was leading to white flight from what the racists feared was a black tidal wave sweeping into their long-standing bastion of exclusivity. The early 1960s were turbulent years in north Philadelphia. We didn't have to go to Selma, Alabama, to get involved in the Black Freedom movement. We had our own battle to fight right there in "the city of brotherly love."
If you haven’t seen “42" I highly recommend that you do so. It is not just another baseball movie. It is an accurate depiction of an enormously important chapter in the history of race relations in America. It is at once a fascinating character study and a multi-faceted love story. There is Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s equally genuine but dissimilar love for baseball. There is Jackie’s and his wife Rachel’s love for each other. There is the fatherly concern of Mr. Rickey for his young protégé, and the appreciative respect of Jackie for his mentor. And there is the hero worship of the fans that transcends racial barriers, and the admiration of the players that exceptional ability eventually evokes. The racial bigotry and ugliness of that period are on full display, but there are touching glimpses of human decency as well.
In the end there is a redemptive quality about the Jackie Robinson Story that sends a viewer home with a better feeling about humanity than one might have expected from such a film. In many ways the movie illustrates what I was trying to express in my July 31, 2012, post entitled “The Uniqueness of Baseball.”
Go see "42" and you’ll understand what I mean.