Faith and Baseball
by Eric Metaxas
In the fall of 1940, Jackie met someone who would change his life: a seventeen-year-old freshman named Rachel Isum. Almost instantly Jackie knew he would marry the beautiful young nursing student, who shared his strong religious beliefs. UCLA’s homecoming dance that year was held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Jackie invited Rachel, and that night they danced to tunes like “Stardust” and “Mood Indigo.”
In March 1942, Jackie received his “Order to Report for Induction,” and he traveled east to Kansas for basic training at Fort Riley. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was now a member of Uncle Sam’s segregated army. Despite becoming an expert marksman and passing the tests for Officer Candidate School, Jackie was turned down for officer training. The army instead put him in a segregated cavalry unit where he worked as a groom, looking after horses.
Jackie was honorably discharged from the US Army on November 27, 1944. By then, he and Rachel were engaged, but with Jackie jobless, marriage would have to wait.
Although hardly a fan of segregation of any kind, much less in sports, Jackie accepted an offer to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro National League team. He also fielded an offer from his old friend Karl Downs, now president of the Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas. Downs invited Jackie to teach physical education at the college, and Jackie accepted, dramatically improving the college’s athletic program and becoming a popular figure with students.
As he thought about his future with Rachel and considered what might lie ahead for them, Jackie never could have dreamed of anything close to the reality that was about to occur. His life was soon to change dramatically. A war was then raging in the sports pages around the country about whether major-league baseball should be integrated. And far away from Jackie, in the distant East Coast city of New York, in the borough of Brooklyn, an idea was brewing that would catapult him into the national consciousness—and into American history.
It all began with a colorful sixty-four-year-old figure named Branch Rickey. Rickey was the legendary general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers team. Rickey was an energetic and relentless innovator whose ideas had already changed baseball in many ways we now take for granted, including use of the batting helmet, batting cages, pitching machines, and statistical analysis. Rickey is even credited with inventing the farm system of the minor leagues and with creating the first spring training facility. But what he was about to do would eclipse all of these things. That’s because as far as Branch Rickey was concerned, the national pastime had to be integrated. And he thought that he was the one to bring about the integration. The only questions were, how should he go about it, and who should be the first black player?
Rickey, a devout Christian who refused to play or attend games on Sunday, knew he would have to be very careful as he proceeded. Other baseball owners and managers would be dead set against the idea of integrating baseball, as would many players. But Rickey’s deep Christian faith told him that injustice must be fought wherever one found it. As he saw it, the Jim Crow laws that excluded black players from baseball were intolerably unjust. Rickey considered that his past experiences and his position in the game had set him up to do something profoundly important for the sport. Indeed, he saw in all of this “a chance to intervene in the moral history of the nation, as Lincoln had done.”
Rickey took seriously Jesus’ command that we be “wise as serpents.” So, very quietly, he sent scouts to Negro League ball games. To disguise his intentions, Rickey announced that he planned to start a new Negro club to be called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. Who could argue with that?