April 15 is known as tax day, but it is also an important day in baseball history — if not American history. Seventy years ago Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. In the latest book about Jackie Robinson, “42 Faith,” Ed Henry recounts the struggles of someone who just wanted to play baseball. But it also shows how faith helped Robinson overcome many hardships.
Many might know the name, since Ed Henry has a hybrid role at Fox News as the chief national correspondent and a freelance anchor on various Fox programs. Within his busy schedule he decided to write this book because this is “the rest of the Jackie Robinson story.”
“It came about 10 years ago at a dinner party at the Belgium ambassador’s house,” Henry said. “After having a bad time, I sat there thinking about the three-strike rule in baseball where you are out. I was about to leave to watch the World Series when the woman beside me shared the story of her late father-in-law. She starts telling this tale how, in 1945, a man shows up at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, who needed to see a minister right away.
“Reverend L. Wendell Fifield received the man, who paced, prayed and silently stewed for about 45 minutes before telling Fifield, ‘I’ve decided to sign Jackie Robinson to his first baseball contract. It’s the hardest decision of my life. I need to be in your presence, in God’s presence, to know it’s the right thing to do.’ Fifield kept his conversation with the man confidential, but he eventually told his wife. And long after her husband’s death, June Fifield wrote in her Church Bulletin a 5-page essay about her husband’s encounter with Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. Being a reporter, I researched this fascinating story and decided to write the book.”
Both Rickey and Robinson were to face many adversities with their craftiness and cunning, guts and grits, brains and brawn, as well as an overwhelming belief in God. It was almost that there was divine intervention on why the color barrier was broken.
Carl Erskine, a teammate of Robinson, told Henry, “Athletic ability and determination could take Robinson only so far. Hidden is how pivotal faith turned out to be.” It helped give Robinson the confidence he needed to rise above not only the taunts and death threats he faced from outsiders, but also the insults he faced from some of his white teammates.
Furthermore, Henry believes, “Rickey had a ‘dark fire’ within him to right the wrongs of racism, which set him on a mission to bring profound change to America. Rickey was looking for someone who had the skills but his scouting report showed he was also looking for someone that had a support network, was married, and a strong sense of faith.”
Unlike politics, sports has a way for teammates to come together. There is a powerful story in the book that was recounted by another colleague of Robinson, Ralph Branca. While sitting down with five other white teammates who were from the Deep South, he reminded them that all had worked in gas stations with African Americans. They responded that the blacks pumped gas, while the whites fixed cars, claiming, “We weren’t equal.”
Branca retorted, “Well, you won’t be equal on the ball field either. Jackie’s better than you.”
Rickey knew this experiment had to succeed and that many on other teams would show their racial resentment through slurs and attempting to do physical harm. To emphasize how faith played such an important role, Henry told how Rickey quoted to Robinson from the Bible, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil. But whosoever shall smite thee on thee right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He then said, “Above all you cannot fight back. That’s the only way this experiment will succeed, and others will follow in your footsteps.”
“Robinson instinctively got that reference from the Bible,” Henry said. “He responded by saying, ‘Mr. Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks. I have another cheek.’ I think they both felt God was with them, and they connected through the Biblical references. In fact, in 1949 in a speech on Capitol Hill, Robinson himself stated, ‘I am a religious man. Therefore I cherish America where I am free to worship as I please.’”
Life Magazine’s headline said it all: “Negroes Are Americans: Jackie Robinson Proves It in Words and on the Ball Field.” Of course it did not hurt that he was leading the National League in runs and RBIs while topping both leagues in hits, stolen bases and batting average.
Jackie Robinson once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” He and Branch Rickey through their belief in God were able to change America and sports forever. Today, most people are color blind to the athletes on the field, and that is thanks to these two courageous Americans.