From a child, baseball has been my favorite team sport. Today, April 15, is Jackie Robinson Day. On April 15, 1997, it became the only number retired throughout the entire league. It is prominently displayed in every Major League park. Beginning in 2004, Major League Baseball permanently named April 15th Jackie Robinson Day each year, marking the day in 1947 when Robinson, a 28-year-old rookie, courageously ran onto Ebbets Field transforming one of the most sacred spaces in American culture.
I want to share with you another hero with Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger president who signed Robinson. While a young coach at Ohio Wesleyan University he made a promise to help break the racial barrier in baseball. Later, as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey meticulously planned and shaped his ‘great experiment’ for integrating the national pastime but he needed a player of great ability, personal courage, and unfathomable self-control.
Rickey said of Robinson, “God was with me when I picked Jackie. I don’t think any other man could have done what he did those first two or three years.” And Robinson would say that in his estimation Rickey did more for African Americans “than any white man since Abraham Lincoln.” (I think it interesting that on this same date, April 15, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This year, 2015, is the 150th anniversary.)
In their first meeting, Aug. 28, 1945, Rickey stunned Robinson with the news he wanted him to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He grilled him for hours and made him commit to three years of non-retaliation. Rickey read to him from Giovanni Papini’s book “Life of Christ” and pointed him to the biblical account of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
Rickey told Robinson, “We can’t fight our way through this Robinson. We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners. No umpires. Very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we convince the world that I’m doing this because you are a great ball player and a fine gentleman.” They agreed.
Rickey said about signing Robinson, “I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own.”
On November 13, 1965, Branch Rickey stepped to the podium to speak after having been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Baseball’s ferocious gentleman had left the hospital against the advice of his doctors because, as he often said, “it is better to die ten minutes sooner than to live doing nothing.” He rose to speak about a topic he had lived — courage. He spoke of having objectives on which there is no price and began to tell the biblical story of Zaccheus, who he said, “Had the greatest amount of courage of any man in the Bible.” He did not get to finish telling about one of his favorite biblical characters because — while still speaking — he collapsed, and less than a month later died.
Billy Graham said of Branch Rickey, “He was a man of deep piety and integrity — that rare combination of a ‘man’s man’ and a Christian man, at the same time.”
May we be people of integrity and people of action.