Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Michael Long & Chris Lamb) -- A Review

JACKIE ROBINSON: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero. By Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I am a fifty-nine-year-old baseball fan, so I know the story of Jackie Robinson, or so I thought. I have known since I was relatively young that Jackie Robinson broke the color line, which allowed players like my hero Willie Mays, along with others such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and many more to enter major league baseball. Baseball was transformed as black players entered the system, proving that they were just as good if not better than white players. Even though Jackie Robinson was a Dodger, and I’m a lifelong Giant fan, I have always held him high regard. Jackie Robinson was more than boundary-breaking baseball player, he was a man of faith and a man of deep commitment to civil rights.

Although several biographies have been written over the years, this book by Michael Long and Chris Lamb is the first one I’ve read. While baseball factors into the story, it is not the main topic. Faith and commitment to civil rights. These are the key topics, and baseball was the vehicle through which Jack Robinson made a mark that transformed a nation.

The introduction to this book begins in Branch Rickey’s office, where on August 28, 1945, not long after Robinson left the army, while playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, the President of the Dodgers first made his offer to Jackie Robinson, inviting him to become a pioneer, a trail-blazer. Rickey had long wanted to break the color barrier, having witnessed the humiliation of a college player he had once coached. He wanted to rectify that situation. But the timing was important. He needed the right player at the right time, and he believed that he found that person in Jackie Robinson. The reason Rickey chose Jackie was because he was a good athlete and had gone to college at UCLA, served in the military. Rickey was also interested in Robinson because of his moral character. Rickey knew that breaking the color barrier would be difficult, and so he needed a player who could be trusted completely. Though Robinson, was known to have a temper, Rickey found that he could appeal to Robinson’s spiritual side. So, in the spring of 1947, Jack Robinson, made his debut in the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers. History was made and changed that day.

The authors of this book are Michael Long, an associate professor or Religious Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at Elizabethtown College, and Chris Lamb, a professor of journalism at Indiana University-Purdue University. They tell Robinson's story with care and respect. It's not hagiographic, but the authors hold Robinson with deep appreciation.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One is titled the Exodus. The three chapters in this section take us from Robinson’s birth in rural Georgia to a share-cropping father who abandoned the family and a mother who instilled in him a faith in God and a belief in his own ability. When life became untenable in Georgia, the family moved to Pasadena, California. The author’s write of Mallie, that she had “a spirit of liberation fueled by her belief that God wants people to fight for their God-given freedom and equality, even if they must suffer along the way” (p. 19). His mother instilled this sense of purpose in Robinson, and it enabled him to persevere and bring change not only to baseball but to the nation. Once in California, Jackie would run into some trouble, but a young Methodist pastor arrived in town and stepped into Robinson’s life. Karl Downs broadened his understanding of the faith and taught him the importance of helping others.

Robinson would attend UCLA, where he was a star athlete, but he left early and took a job with the National Youth Association, from there he entered the army. There he encountered racism, in ways he had not experienced in Pasadena. He pursued the opportunity to become and officer, and he pushed back on the limits placed on him as a black person. He had been taught that he was a child of God, and as such he would not go to the back of the bus. His unwillingness to bend got him in trouble, but it showed the confidence he would need when entering baseball. After leaving the army, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs, where he caught the eye of Branch Rickey, and the rest is history.

Part Two is titled “A Boundary-Breaking Faith.” In this section of the book the authors describe his baseball career, focusing on his first year with Montreal, where he faced abuse in many American cities, but nothing but support in Montreal. This would be the proving ground, and through his faith, including a lot of prayer, he survived and was invited to play for the Dodgers in 1947. Again, while Robinson’s prowess as a player is described, more important is the faith that allowed him to take up this cause, indeed, this calling. In this section, we also learn more about Rickey’s faith. Being that both were Methodists, their common faith linked them together in ways that went beyond baseball. Rickey would be to Robinson a father-figure, even as Karl Downs, his pastor, was. This story of breaking a boundary is powerful and needs to be heard, especially right now when we seem to be going in the wrong direction when it comes to racial relations.  A key component in Robinson’s ability to persevere was his faith, and Rickey placed before him Jesus, suggesting that he was his moral example, and that like Jesus he would need to turn the other cheek, despite the suffering it would bring. As with Jesus, the stakes of for others was high. That faith would sustain him.

In the first two sections of the book, we are introduced to the four people who most influenced Robinson's life. His mother, Pastor Karl Downs, his wife Rachel, and Branch Rickey. All four had a deep faith in God, and they helped sustain his own faith during challenging times. Then we get to part three, which is titled "Fighting for Freedom." It is this section that is the most enlightening for me. I knew he was a ground-breaking athlete, who paved the way for other black players, and had some influence in the civil rights movement, but I didn't know how important and influential he was. I didn't realize that after he left baseball (remember that he didn't enter the major leagues until he was twenty-eight), he became a business man, a civil rights leader in his own right, and a columnist. He used his fame as a player as a platform to push political leaders to do what was right. He challenged Presidents and congressional leaders. He may have turned the other cheek in 1947, but the mid-1950s he had enough of turning the other cheek, and began to actively agitate for major civil rights changes. He spoke out clearly against gradualism. He was both a friend and critic of a Martin Luther King (he wasn't as committed to nonviolence as King), a leader with the NAACP, a staunch supporter of the Jewish community, whom he believed had suffered as African Americans had, and spoke against those within his own community who expressed anti-Semitic views. He was an integrationist and not a separatist. He believed in self-help and self-determination, values instilled in him by his mother. He was a progressive Republican, but was not beholden to either party. He was close to Nelson Rockefeller, but fell out with Richard Nixon after Nixon pursued his Southern strategy. He was committed to change, and could be impatient. In fact, he used his newspaper column to express this impatience, challenging Presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon. 

When Robinson died in 1972, thousands gathered along the streets of Brooklyn to honor his memory. He was truly a boundary-breaking man, but he was also a man of faith, though he wasn't sure he could embrace Jesus' vision of nonviolence. He was a man of prayer, and that prayer sustained him in his commitment to the cause of the uplift of the African American people. He was willing to suffer, but he wanted to pave the way for others so that they might not suffer. It is a powerful story that needs to be heard. As the book closes, the authors invite us to read the statement placed upon his tombstone, a statement they suggest defined his spiritual approach to life: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." (p. 178). Truly we can say, his life was important because of the impact his life had on other lives. May we embrace his philosophy of life, as revealed in this wonderful book that touched the heart of this Giant fan! I hope others will read and have their hearts touched. Jackie Robinson was a boundary breaker, but first of all he was a man of faith. 


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