“Do you know why you were brought here?” Rickey asked Robinson, according to Arnold Rampersad’s book, Jackie Robinson: A Biography.
“To play on a new colored Brooklyn team?” Jackie replied.
“No,” Rickey said. “That isn’t it. You were brought here, Jackie, to play for the new Brooklyn organization.”
In other words, Jackie Robinson would become the first African American player to break the color barrier in major league baseball. Since the late 19th century, there had been a “gentleman’s agreement” in baseball that no black players would be allowed on the field.
But on this particular day in August of 1945, Robinson was being asked if he would become the one to break the barrier.
“I was thrilled, scared, and excited,” Robinson would recall, says Rampersad’s biography. “I was incredulous. Most of all, I was speechless.”
But then Rickey said something even more shocking.
“I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey said.
Not fight back? Surely, Rickey must know that Jackie Robinson would be taunted and even physically threatened for breaking the color barrier. How could the general manager ask Robinson not to fight back?
Both Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were Christians, so Rickey pulled out a copy of a book, Life of Christ, and turned to a page where Jesus is quoted as saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
This passage, Matthew 5:38-42, is a difficult teaching, but it was going to be especially hard for Robinson, who wasn’t one to let people steamroll over him. But Rickey believed that for this experiment to work, Jackie Robinson must not fight back. If he could hold strong and not be incited to fight, only then would other black players be allowed to follow him into baseball.
This philosophy of non-violence would later go on to become the hallmark of another devotee of Jesus—Martin Luther King, Jr.
In taking this difficult stand, Robinson would be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who allowed Himself to be arrested, scourged, and crucified. When Jesus was hauled before Pontius Pilate, the governor, He was silent. He knew that His mission in this world was to die, to take on the sins of the world, to be the sacrificial lamb—like the innocent, spotless lambs that were sacrificed daily in the Temple.
My sons always kid me that I can find a “Christ figure” in just about any movie—a character whose sacrifice saves others, whose willingness to die rescues his friends or family, sometimes even an enemy. But I don’t think I’m going overboard when I say that Jackie Robinson was a Christ figure, whether he knew it or not. He took on the sins of baseball, an organization that had kept black players off the field since the late 1800s. Just as Jesus did not fight back, Jackie Robinson would not fight back, and it must have killed him. He must have felt like he was dying every day when he was being taunted on the base paths.
But Jesus has a way of conquering death, and Jackie Robinson conquered death whenever he resisted the urge to fight. Jesus blazed the path to resurrection, and Jackie Robinson blazed a path that opened up baseball to thousands of athletes.
Jackie Robinson must have been sorely tempted to ignore Branch Rickey’s advice, especially on days like April 22, 1947, when the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager had three of his players pour insults on Robinson throughout the game. But the taunting united Jackie with his white Dodger teammates, and it even drew heartfelt apologies from some of the Phillies’ players.
Evil has a way of backfiring on itself.
Just think of Jesus. The crucifixion wasn’t the last word because resurrection soon followed. When you follow the path of Christ, resurrection always follows death, and evil is defeated. Just when you think you’ve been called out, you find out that you’re safe at home.
By Doug Peterson