The Faith Factor and The Signing of Jackie Robinson

Today, April 15, marks the day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. The executive who signed the talented athlete was Branch Rickey, President of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yesterday, CNN reported that Branch Rickey’s faith was a strong motivation for his decision to sign Robinson.

Prior to signing Robinson, Rickey anguished over the decision. According to an account recently discovered by CNN, Rickey entered Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims to reflect on the matter. He approached the minister, Wendell Fifield telling him that he did not want to talk, just to be in the minister’s study. According to the story written by Fifield’s wife June, Rickey paced the floor in silent contemplation for 45 minutes before coming to a conclusion. CNN’s Jamie Crawford retells the eureka moment:

Finally, Rickey didn’t just break the silence, he shattered it.

“I’ve got it,” Rickey yelled emphatically as he banged his fist on the desk.

“Got what, Branch?” Fifield asked. “Wendell,” Rickey said, “I’ve decided to sign Jackie Robinson!”

June Fifield wrote that as Rickey regained his composure he sank into a chair and told her husband, “This was a decision so complex, so far-reaching, fraught with so many pitfalls but filled with so much good, if it was right, that I just had to work it out in this room with you. I had to talk to God about it and be sure what he wanted me to do. I hope you don’t mind.”

Rev. Fifield did not mind. He did, however, keep the story such a good secret that only his wife knew of the event, and that revelation came years later. In 1966, June Fifield wrote about it for the church bulletin but the account was untold to Robinson, his widow and even to Rickey’s children.

During the CNN segment this morning, reporter Ed Henry said that he told President Obama about the story involving Robinson and Rickey. Obama commented that the Rickey-Robinson breakthrough had impact on every part of American society, including his election as the first African-American President.

I share a hometown with Branch Rickey - Portsmouth, Ohio – and was always reminded of his legacy because I played my high school baseball for the Portsmouth Trojans in Branch Rickey Park (pictured below).

To me, Branch Rickey’s role in this story is sweet irony. Race relations were tense in Portsmouth, at times erupting into violence. For most of my life there, African-Americans were segregated into neighborhoods surrounding a large public housing project. There was tangible prejudice and discrimination, even among Christians. I can recall times when my African-American friends were denied services. And yet, from this milieu, Branch Rickey emerged as a key player in a drama which has had a profound positive effect on American racial attitudes, far beyond the playing field.

You can watch the CNN segment or read the entire transcript here. For now, this paragraph is a fitting close:

When a well-known journalist of the era told the Dodgers general manager that he thought “all hell would break loose” the next day with Robinson due to take the field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger, Rickey disagreed. “My grandfather immediately responded to him, ‘I believe tomorrow all heaven will rejoice,’” the younger Rickey said.

I feel sure heaven rejoiced, and continues to. And here on earth, even though the nation and the church have a long way to go, this Portsmouth boy is smiling too.

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