On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play major-league baseball, as the Dodgers beat the Boston Braves 5-3 over in Brooklyn. The sixtieth anniversary of that event was a little over a week ago, when fitting commemorations were held in ballparks across the continent.
We tend to remember that moment in 1947 as if a lightning bolt had struck America from on high, but in fact it was the outcome of a lengthy process. In October 1945, the Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey, announced that he had signed the Negro League star to a minor-league contract. Nothing like that had ever been done before. Robinson’s first game with the Montreal Royals of the International League the following spring drew a packed house of 25,000 at an away game in New Jersey. It was reported with some fanfare. By the time Robinson was promoted to the big leagues twelve months later, this news of a racially integrated professional baseball team had lost some of its newsworthiness. The crowd of 26,283 at Ebbets Field that day was about 7,000 shy of a sellout.
It may have been old news by then, but it was monumental history. So what were they thinking, those thousands of Brooklynites who felt they had more pressing business than to be present for what in hindsight appears to us as the first and original Jackie Robinson Day? With respect to the past, we arrogantly assume what Red Barber, the Dodgers’ radio announcer, liked to call the catbird seat. From our perch up here we look down on our parents and grandparents and marvel at all they were ignorant of. For us it appears fixed and settled, the souvenir ball inside the glass case in the museum. Were you there, though, when they were throwing and batting it around? It was not so much an object as a blur, like the tail of a comet, a fleeting swoosh seen as through a glass, darkly.
What gradually came into focus is the heroic restraint Robinson exercised in the face of racially motivated provocation. Part of what we celebrated April 15 was that virtue that Martin Luther King Jr. would later exemplify and call nonviolent resistance. We see this now, and most of Robinson’s contemporaries didn’t, or didn’t immediately, but there is more to the Jackie Robinson story than can be seen even from our usual catbird seat.
What motivated Robinson to take the high road that he did? "I know you’re a good ballplayer," Rickey told him at their first meeting, in August 1945, only days after Japan had surrendered to end the Second World War. "What I don’t know is whether you have the guts." Robinson assured him that he was one to fight back and defend his honor. Rickey corrected him: "I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
Rickey took off his jacket and proceeded to act the part of a hostile base runner going out of his way to spike Robinson on the slide into second base. White waiters would refuse to serve him. Railroad conductors would turn their backs on him. How would Robinson react? Rickey’s point was that Robinson had to be willing to endure such indignities without retaliating.
In due course, Rickey read to Robinson some familiar words from the Sermon on the Mount: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, 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 thy cheek, turn to him the other also."
"I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey," Robinson answered. "Is that it?" That was it.
My source for this rendition of that first meeting between Rickey and Robinson is Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman , a gracefully narrated, amply documented biography by baseball writer Lee Lowenfish. "Nobody will ever know the hell Robinson went through in those [first] seasons," Rickey said to a reporter years later. About that much he was wrong. We may not know all the hell Robinson went through, but we know some of it. It’s central to the Jackie Robinson story most of us have come to know.
Most of us have not come to know the part about the Christianity, about the Sermon on the Mount being Robinson’s playbook for how to handle the racial animus he was sure to encounter, or about how Rickey’s feelings for racial justice flowed from his conservative brand of Protestantism. (Even in his short-lived career as a player, he wouldn’t step into a ballpark on Sundays.) In his politics, Rickey was a stalwart Republican, supporting every candidate his party nominated to oppose FDR, whose muscular foreign policy against the fascist threat abroad was the one point on which Rickey agreed with him. For Rickey, who was born in 1881, the GOP meant, besides free enterprise and anticommunism, Lincoln and the antislavery movement, and it fit nicely with his religiously informed views on contemporary racial issues.
But the only culture at the middle of the twentieth century was, as Lionel Trilling famously commented, liberal culture, and so the story that has come down to us is that the fight to end desegregation was essentially a liberal cause. Secular liberals did play their part in their ad hoc alliance with the churches, whose own contribution to the civil-rights era is not much recognized anymore. Just as schoolchildren in the Soviet Union were taught that the Second World War was a matter of the Red Army defeating the Wehrmacht , as if the American soldiers on the Western front made no serious difference, so American kids today grow up thinking that the fight for racial equality is something that the Democratic party won while the likes of Branch Rickey¯conservative Republicans, devout Christians¯were actually out there with Bull Connor hosing down the demonstrators.
Lowenfish in his biography scrapes away all that crust and shows us the historical reality for what it was. It’s not a conservative book and Lowenfish is not a conservative writer or, to my knowledge, a Christian, but he’s honest and fair in his treatment of the conservative and Christian that was Branch Rickey, whom he clearly admires. He did a reading at a bookstore on the Upper West Side a couple of weeks ago. During the question-and-answer period afterward, there was some discussion about Rickey’s politics and religion. One of the questions might have been laced with just the hint of a sneer. It was hard to read the tone of voice. I suppose Lowenfish couldn’t be sure either. He answered the question and then adroitly added, "I should mention that we have members of Branch Rickey’s family in our audience," and he went on to introduce them. Tactfully, he was telling us to be tactful, and I got a glimpse of what it might be to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars.
Nicholas Frankovich is managing editor of Fordham University Press.