Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the hidden hand of God that changed history
Journalist and baseball lover Ed Henry reveals for the first time the backstory of faith that guided Jackie Robinson into not only the baseball record books but the annals of civil rights advancement as well. Through recently discovered sermons, interviews with Robinson’s family and friends, and even an unpublished book by the player himself, Henry details a side of Jackie’s humanity that few have taken the time to see.
Branch Rickey, the famed owner who risked it all by signing Jackie to his first contract, is also shown as a complex individual who wanted nothing more than to make his God-fearing mother proud of him. Few know the level at which Rickey struggled with his decision, only moving forward after a private meeting with a minister he’d just met. It turns out Rickey was not as certain about signing Robinson as historians have always assumed.
With many baseball stories to enthrall even the most ardent enthusiast, 42 Faith also digs deep into why Jackie was the man he was and what both drove him and challenged him after his retirement. From his early years before baseball, to his time with Rickey and the Dodgers, to his failing health in his final years, we see a man of faith that few have recognized.
This book will add a whole new dimension to Robinson’s already awe-inspiring legacy. Yes, Jackie and Branch are both still heroes long after their deaths. Now, we learn more fully than ever before, there was an assist from God too.
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About the Author
Henry has won numerous journalism honors, including the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress and the White House Correspondents Association's Merriman Smith Award for excellence in presidential coverage under deadline pressure in 2008.
Henry also served in the prestigious post of president of the White House Correspondents' Association from 2012-2013, after being elected in an unopposed election by his peers in the White House press corps. Prior to joining FNC, Henry was at CNN from 2004-2011, where he served as the network's senior White House correspondent and a congressional correspondent.
Henry began his career working for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Anderson and later joined the newspaper Roll Call as a reporter, where he rose to senior editor.
Henry graduated from Siena College with a B.A. in English.
Read an Excerpt
The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story
By Ed Henry
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Ed Henry
All rights reserved.
"I'M TAKING A CHANCE HERE"
Except for a handful of families drowning their pancakes in maple syrup, most of the tables were empty at the IHOP just off of I-69 in central Indiana in the summer of 2016. So I figured it would be easy to spot one of Jackie Robinson's last surviving teammates.
But, of course, this veteran of the Brooklyn Dodgers refused to sit at a "showboating" table in the front of the restaurant, where he might be recognized by a fan. Instead he opted for a quiet booth way in the back by the restrooms.
Robinson and his teammates were romanticized as the heroic "Boys of Summer." But, in most cases, what actually made them great was that they were fairly regular guys grounded in reality. And several of them were serious about their faith in God — a striking contrast from the "me first" mantra of many of the spoiled athletic stars of the modern era.
"You must be here to see Mr. Carl," said a cheerful young woman running the restaurant, seeing me scan the room.
And then I spotted him. There, in a polo shirt in that distinctive bright Dodgers blue, was former star pitcher Carl Erskine.
I was thrilled to see him so I could hear all about Robinson. But I quickly found out that Erskine was excited to see me so he could eat up every morsel about the astonishing 2016 presidential campaign that I covered as a reporter. As I took a seat across from him in the booth, he immediately invoked the name of the late baseball player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola with a line that was prescient.
"Garagiola had that line, 'It might look great on paper. But in the grass and the dirt, it's going to play out differently,'" recalled Erskine. "And on the political scene, it's the same. The polls tell you one thing, the actual votes tell you another."
After we kicked around the latest controversies surrounding Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the former pitcher mentally went into his windup, beginning three hours of magnificent stories with his first memories of his days with the Dodgers.
"So I first pitched against the real team, the big team, in 1948," Erskine remembered about his days pitching for a minor league club, the Fort Worth Cats. The boys from Brooklyn — including legendary Dodgers from the major league club like Robinson, Ralph Branca, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese — had come to Texas for an exhibition contest.
"After the game, I'm in the dugout, and a voice says, 'Where's Erskine?'" He waved his arm to mimic a teammate frantically telling him to turn around and get a glimpse at the Dodger asking to shake his hand. "It was Jackie Robinson."
On this morning, Erskine was closing in on ninety years old and wearing sunglasses indoors to shield his sensitive eyes from the light. But his memory was razor sharp as he pronounced each syllable carefully.
"Young man, I hit against you twice today," Robinson told Erskine, "and you're not going to be here long."
Still in awe decades later, Erskine said, "Isn't that amazing? A minor league kid."
In fact, Robinson was dead-on. Erskine would be called up from the minors to the Dodgers within months, and the two men would become close friends despite their different races and backgrounds.
That same spring, in 1948, when the Dodgers stopped in Alabama for an exhibition game, Robinson had perhaps an even deeper impact on a young African American kid named Henry "Hank" Aaron. Aaron skipped school in order to race over and join a crowd that gathered outside a drugstore just to hear Robinson speak.
"I don't remember what he said," Aaron wrote in a foreword to Cal Fussman's 2007 oral history on Robinson's legacy, After Jackie.
"It didn't matter what he said. He was standing there."
What Aaron did recall clearly was sitting on his back porch in Mobile a few years earlier. When a plane flew overhead, he told his father he wanted to be a pilot.
"Ain't no colored pilots," his dad said.
A dream of playing major league baseball drew the same response: "Ain't no colored ballplayers."
But when that drugstore encounter was over, Aaron's dad brought him to the game to see Jackie play. "After that day, he never told me ever again that I couldn't be a ballplayer," wrote Aaron, who grew into one of the greats of the game. "I was allowed to dream after that."
Those brief moments of grace, within days of each other in Fort Worth and Mobile, were important. They gave two young men, one white and one black, their first real window into Robinson's character.
A PRIVATE FAITH
The impact that Robinson had on Erskine and Aaron also helps set up the central question of this book: How much of a role did faith play in helping Robinson make history against such long odds?
One clue comes from an unpublished manuscript Robinson was working on during the early 1960s. This rich new source of information suggests Jackie's faith may have played a bigger part in his ability to persevere than historians have ever considered before.
Robinson did publish a handful of books during his lifetime, some more famous than others. But, as you will see in the chapters ahead, he got more personal in the unpublished manuscript. It was supposed to be one in a series of books for children by famous people, who would write about their greatest day as a way of imparting lessons for others.
My Greatest Day was never published as a book of its own. Robinson and coauthor Alfred Duckett did revise the manuscript and publish parts of it as a book, titled Breakthrough to the Big League, in 1965. So many portions of My Greatest Day, some of which dealt explicitly with Robinson's faith, were left out.
The deeply personal reflections by Robinson have been lost to the dustbin of history, until now.
My Greatest Day was included in the personal papers Robinson's wife, Rachel, donated to the Library of Congress in 2001. Those papers are now kept in the library's Manuscript Division in Washington, DC, where anyone can read the unpublished manuscript and other fascinating records from Robinson's life.
In My Greatest Day, Robinson wrote about a pivotal lesson he learned as a teenager. His Christian minister in Pasadena, California, Karl Downs, challenged him to accept that God was the ultimate force for good. "To seek to help others without expecting anything in return," wrote Robinson.
He implied that faith in God is demonstrated not only in the things we say but also in what we actually do. Pouring through this trove of rich material reminded me of one of the most powerful sentences in the Bible: "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18).
Robinson was a man of deed and truth at his very core. That approach enabled him to overcome the struggles summed up bluntly by Aaron, when he said that before Jackie, "There were a lot of things blacks couldn't be back then."
Erskine also noted that when he signed his own first contract in 1946, "The baseballs were all white, and so were all the players."
That precedent was dramatically upended on April 15, 1947, when Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey brought Robinson up to the big leagues, and Robinson trotted out to first base at Ebbets Field for his first major league game. Robinson would lean in to the challenges of his unique situation so aggressively that genuine civil rights icons played catch-up to him. Jackie suited up for that game a full eight years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to obey a bus driver's order to give up her seat in the "colored" section to a white person. The future Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just eighteen years old.
"He was a sit-inner before sit-ins," Dr. King would later write of Robinson, "a freedom rider before freedom rides."
Aaron and other prominent African Americans have noted that if Jackie had failed at the start, his brethren from the Negro Leagues would not have gotten a second chance for years — maybe decades. (Black professional teams have been traced back to 1885, though the "Negro Leagues" typically refers to the seven shabbily treated leagues that started forming in 1920 and largely featured black and Latin American players.)
If Robinson failed at his big break, two-faced white owners of baseball teams would have tried to mask their racist intentions and declared — more in sadness than anger, they would claim — "Well, sorry, but the finest of the Negro Leagues tried to make it big and simply could not hack it."
Talk about intense pressure on one man's shoulders. To me, it's almost like a perverse twist on what Robert Thaves once said about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, except "backwards and in high heels." Jackie did what other Hall of Fame baseball players were doing — and more — but while facing an onslaught of death threats and racial slurs.
"He was physically and verbally abused, particularly when he was on the road, in certain cities," recalled Rachel Robinson, who was also personally instrumental in helping him persevere. "The taunts angered him, sometimes frightened him, but he turned away from them."
EARLY FAITH INFLUENCES
Through it all, faith in God helped give Jackie the strength to calmly rise above all of that viciousness, though that part of the story has gotten little bursts of attention.
"[It's] something that has been barely touched on," said Erskine, who believes there had to be divine intervention because athletic ability and determination — while, of course, important — could take Robinson only so far.
"That's kind of hidden in all this," Erskine said of how pivotal faith turned out to be. "It would be hard to prove that. Except for the outcome."
His point was that the chances of the experiment being a success were pretty slim. "If Las Vegas had made the odds, it would've been overwhelming that it wouldn't succeed," said Erskine. "Segregation was so prevalent at the time. People today don't really know how unlikely this was."
Erskine believed that Rickey, who rarely said or did anything by accident, purposely invoked religion near the end of his first face-to-face meeting with Robinson at the Dodgers' offices in Brooklyn on August 28, 1945. Rickey had ordered up a complete scouting report on Robinson's personal life, not only his baseball abilities. And he had gleaned a lot. Despite their obvious racial and generational differences, Robinson and Rickey each had strong mothers who instilled in them a durable Christian faith at an early age.
Rickey instinctively knew he could connect with Robinson through Scripture. So he reached into his desk drawer to grab a copy of Life of Christ by Giovanni Papini. He began reading aloud to Robinson the section about turning the other cheek.
"I would say the spiritual strength that Rickey tweaked in Jackie in that meeting was the key to his ability to resist the attacks," Erskine told me in the interview.
Robinson's personal papers support this point of view, so Erskine was not going out on a limb. In My Greatest Day, Robinson credited God and Rickey with enabling him to keep his anger in check for the greater good.
The player made it clear that the greatest day of his life was when he sat in Rickey's office in 1945, a meeting we will delve into a lot deeper shortly, and learned he was going to be on the path to becoming the first African American in Major League Baseball. He stressed that he did not consider it his greatest day because of the fame he attained, or the comfortable home in Connecticut he settled into, after getting his shot.
Instead, what made it great was Robinson being pushed by Rickey to rise above the anger he had demonstrated earlier in his life over discrimination and denied opportunities. Robinson knew this was his chance to show that an entire race — not just one man — was up to the challenge.
"Somebody else might have ... done a better job," wrote Robinson. "But God and Branch Rickey made it possible for me to be the one, and I just went on in and did the best I knew how."
The ballplayer also explicitly cited the importance of the faith of his mother. He did this in the context of stressing that faith helped define his very being, though he did not wear religion on his sleeve during his playing career or try to hold himself up as a pious person.
"Yet, it has always impressed me that two of the people who had the greatest influence on my life — my mother and Branch Rickey — had such deep faith in the existence of a Supreme Being," Robinson wrote. "It is one thing to express faith. It is another thing to do as these two people did — to practice faith every day of one's life."
Robinson explained that from an early age he learned to live by a certain code. You try to work things out and you battle back a little with your mouth, he wrote, but then maybe you simply have to settle it with your fists. Who could blame him for wanting to lash out?
A sports journalist once succinctly described Robinson as someone "born with a big mouth, a rattlesnake temper," who never took racial discrimination lightly, dating back to the slights he dealt with during his childhood in Pasadena, California, when he was banned from the local swimming pool and YMCA.
Even though he became a hero, in his writings Robinson showed himself to be human — someone who explored his faith at difficult moments like the rest of us. At the start of Rickey's experiment, Robinson honestly didn't know whether he could hold up amid all the nastiness.
He and Rickey discussed that difficult upbringing as they sat face to face. The executive pressed him about whether he could hold his temper, and Robinson admitted he was scared because he did not really know the answer.
"Could I turn the other cheek?" Robinson wrote. "Could I take insults and humiliation without fighting back? I knew what he meant — and it was frightening."
"THE MAHATMA'S" DARKEST HOUR
Erskine told me he enjoyed the movie 42, particularly because he thought actor Harrison Ford captured the mannerisms and histrionics of Rickey. But he was disappointed that the references to the Bible from that first meeting between Rickey and Robinson were downplayed in the film.
"It was omitted," Erskine said. "Why? Political correctness."
(God, of course, was mentioned several times in the movie, including when Rickey quipped, "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong. Find him. Bring him here.")
After we finally ordered our breakfast at IHOP, I told him I had a new piece of information that was also left out of the Hollywood version.
The conventional wisdom has long been that Rickey, nicknamed "The Mahatma" because of his more public pronouncements of his Christian faith, was dead certain about Robinson from the beginning. People assumed that he did not hesitate in signing Robinson to his first contract because it was the just thing to do.
This was why Rickey's push to integrate baseball variously became known as his Great Experiment, Grand Experiment, and Noble Experiment. The idea was that he felt he was morally right to hire an African American, and he never really wavered in his crusade to bring equality to the sport and, by extension, to America.
The truth, however, is more complicated.
It turns out that, as Robinson admitted in his writings, Rickey was more scared about the experiment than he let on publicly. Privately, he had second thoughts about whether he could go through with it. He was facing intense pressure from baseball's white owners and team executives, who were vehemently opposed.
At his most vulnerable moment, he sought some spiritual guidance from that minister mentioned earlier.
"He had humbled himself and sought to communicate with a Presence and a Wisdom and a Power beyond his own," the minister's wife wrote of Rickey. "For he knew that, alone, he was insufficient to the task of knowing right from wrong, as we all are."
It was another sign that perhaps faith in God had a bigger role in this decision on multiple levels.
Erskine mulled over this information as he leaned back into the booth at IHOP.
"I'll be darned," he said.
And the talk of faith had stirred something else in Erskine. It was not a story directly about Robinson, but more a memory buried deep inside, about what he considers the strangest stroke of fate he saw in his long life.
It involved the 1951 Brooklyn team, on which both Erskine and Robinson played. The team suffered a heartbreaking loss to their chief rival, the New York Giants. Bobby Thomson won it with a home run that was so devastating for Brooklyn that it became known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," and it propelled the Giants to that year's World Series instead of the Dodgers.
"Now, I'm going to tell you a story, but you can't write it," Erskine said. "You have to give me your word. You cannot write it."
I gave Erskine my word that I wouldn't publish anything he wasn't comfortable with.
Then, as he began to tell the story, Erskine shifted course. He began cracking open the door to letting me publish the information.
Excerpted from 42 Faith by Ed Henry. Copyright © 2017 Ed Henry. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Larry King xi
Introduction Juan Williams xiii
1 "I'm Taking a Chance Here" 1
2 Jackie in Winter 11
3 Rickey Had a Secret 21
4 Jackie on a Train 35
5 "God Will Hove to Keep His Eye on You" 47
6 "I Resolved Not to Be a Doormat" 53
7 Branch Finds God 63
8 Jackie Meets Mr. Rickey 79
9 No Doubting Thomas 93
10 "All Heaven Will Rejoice" 103
11 The Conversion of Clay Hopper 119
12 Mo Sleep Till Brooklyn 135
13 "Goose Pimples" at Ebbets Field 147
14 Prayers for Jackie 157
15 Uneasy Alliance with Campy 171
16 Losing Rickey 185
17 "The Giants Win the Pennant!" 195
18 "How Do You Like That Garbage?!" 211
19 Robinson Traded to the… Giants? 225
20 Their Belief in God's Spirit 237
21 "My Son Deserved Better" 253
22 "Carl, I Pray for You Every Day" 269
23 The Last Hurrah 281
A Note on Unpublished Sources 297
About the Author 333