On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto the infield dirt at Ebbets Field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger. He went hitless that day against the Boston Braves, but scored the deciding run in the seventh inning after reaching base on an error. It was an anticlimactic start to the most important season in baseball history. Enduring a barrage of racial epithets, threats on his life, pitchers throwing at his head, and opponents spiking him at first base, Robinson played his way to a Rookie of the Year award, carried the Dodgers to a National League pennant, and proved definitively to his antagonists that African Americans belonged in Major League Baseball.
As historian Jon Meacham recently argued, it is not inappropriate to describe Robinson’s place in American memory with the language of hagiography. “Robinson is a secular saint,” Meacham reasons, “revered for his skill and his bravery in making what was known as the noble experiment of desegregating baseball before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Montgomery bus boycott, before the March on Washington, before Selma.” For decades, historians and biographers have tried to understand Robinson’s contributions beyond the 1947 season, examining his significance to the Civil Rights movement, politics, and broader American culture. Recently, authors have turned their attention to Robinson’s Christian faith to understand his life of service and activism. Robinson’s faith is the subject of the new biography, Strength For the Fight, by Gary Scott Smith. Smith, long-time history professor at Grove City College, has published widely on the Social Gospel, faith and the U.S. Presidency, and, in addition to Jackie Robinson, has written religious biographies of Mark Twain and Hilary Clinton. Smith’s chief contention is that Robinson’s drive for racial equality in baseball, business, and politics were “inspired by his faith,” and his contributions to American society cannot be understood apart from his religious convictions.
Smith’s narrative is a straightforward, chronological account of Robinson’s life, beginning with a chapter on his childhood, adolescence, and early athletic career at UCLA and in the Negro Leagues. Two figures were foundational for Robinson’s early spiritual formation: his mother Mallie and his minister at Scott Methodist Church, Rev. Karl Downs. From Mallie, Robinson learned the basics of the Christian faith: the importance of prayer and righteous living; trusting the Lord for provision; and a conviction that God empowered his people to labor for justice. When Downs started his pastorate in January 1937, Robinson was 17, and involved in a local gang. With Downs’ direction, Robinson became committed to his Christian faith, volunteering at the church and teaching Sunday School. Downs was an active voice for Black rights, both in the largely white Methodist Episcopal Church (the denomination in which he was ordained) and the NAACP. Mallie’s moral convictions and Downs’ commitment to Black dignity and equality shaped Jackie as he became arguably the greatest college athlete in America (Robinson was a four-sport letterwinner at UCLA).
The second chapter examines the third great spiritual influence in Jackie’s life: general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Rickey’s ardent Methodist faith animated his decision to integrate Major League Baseball, and specifically to sign Jackie Robinson. According to Smith, it was Robinson’s “Christian faith, consistent church attendance, and biblical morality” that commended him over other black players (54). At their first meeting, Robinson and Rickey spoke frankly about their shared faith, and Smith documents that spiritual conversation was a large part of their friendship until Rickey’s death in 1965.
Chapters three and four focus, respectively, on Robinson’s 1946 minor league season with the Montreal Royals and the 1947 MLB season. In both years, undergoing immense stress, Robinson relied especially on the support of his wife, Rachel. Both Rachel and Jackie testified to the centrality of their faith to get through those first few seasons together, especially nightly prayer. As Smith shows throughout the book, in the many interviews and reminiscences given by Jackie and Rachel about Jackie’s first years of baseball, both testified to the importance of prayer to sustain their family. Jackie recognized the impact of his religious convictions in an interview he gave on Opening Day. Noting his thankfulness to God for the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, he mentioned his experiences teaching Sunday School to troubled youth as the perfect preparation to deal with antagonistic white teammates and opponents—God had prepared him for the belligerence and rejection involved in integrating baseball.
The final three chapters of the book survey the remainder of Robinson’s baseball career and active retirement in which he became a major figure in Black entrepreneurship, the civil rights movement, and national politics. Here Smith illustrates the ways in which the mythic version of Robinson has obscured just how enigmatic a figure he was. As a baseball player, he was a lightning rod of controversy among players, front offices, and reporters who urged him to remain silent on race issues. After his playing career, Robinson served as vice president of Chock Full O’Nuts, a national coffee shop franchise. He was an outspoken proponent of American capitalism, quite critical of communism, and invested in several projects aimed at encouraging the growth of Black businesses, including Harlem’s Freedom National Bank. In civil rights, he was a longtime supporter, fundraiser, and member of the NAACP, but left in 1967 unsatisfied with the complacency of the organization. Robinson enjoyed a long and abiding friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., but he publicly broke with his friend to support American involvement in Vietnam. He engaged in published debates with William F. Buckley, Jr., Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, and the Black Panthers. In politics, he supported Nixon in his 1960 run for the White House, and became a special advisor to Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as he positioned his own run for the presidency. Many Black leaders criticized Robinson for his support for the Republican Party, but Robinson’s politics were largely determined by his goals for civil rights—he would publicly endorse candidates from either party who he deemed as a friend to the cause of African Americans. Yet by his untimely death in 1972, much of Robinson’s optimism for the Republican Party, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement had given way to disillusionment and frustration at the lack of progress afforded to Black Americans since integration. Smith methodically takes the reader through these cultural debates, showing how Robinson’s foundational faith commitments informed his responses to the political, economic, and social concerns of his day.
When examining the content of Robinson’s faith—especially his personal piety and emphasis on social justice—Smith argues that the Black church tradition, Methodism, and the Social Gospel all served as key influences. Similar to his politics, Robinson’s religion is difficult to pigeonhole. As Smith notes, Robinson expounded on the importance of prayer, faith in God, and a commitment to divine justice throughout his interviews, articles, and autobiographies. Additionally, after his friendship with Rev. Downs, Robinson maintained a “strict moral code on such issues as smoking, drinking, and premarital and extramarital sex” (193). Smith reports that it was the frequent carousing of his teammates that initially soured Robinson to life in the Negro Leagues (35). When propositioned by a female fan in his rookie season, he responded by reiterating the marriage vows he had made to Rachel the year before (97). Robinson believed that Black equality was a spiritual fight, a divine conflict for true equality and justice. Because of this conviction, he held to a firm belief in the providence of God as well as a conviction that personal responsibility required action on behalf of righteousness. The Lord was ultimately in control, but had high expectations for his people (195–96). Despite the clear significance of his faith, ambiguities about Robinson’s Christianity remain. As Smith reports, despite the regular church attendance of Robinson’s youth which caught Branch Rickey’s eye when the former was signed to the Dodgers, Robinson “rarely attended church services regularly” during his career and retirement, bucking the high rates of church attendance in the decades after World War II (167). Robinson’s writings and speeches that concern faith contain little in the way of interpreting scripture or dissecting minute bits of theology. Instead, Smith concludes, Robinson “focused primarily on biblical themes of social justice rather than on personal spirituality” (203).
Overall, Smith’s biography offers a worthwhile exploration of Robinson, his faith, and his contributions to American society. His thorough bibliography serves as a great introduction to the relevant studies on Robinson’s life, and it is to Smith’s credit that much of the narrative moves along on the basis of first-hand quotes from his subject or those around him. If I can offer one quibble on the work, however, it would have to be that Smith at times reserves judgment to his readers’ detriment. In his effort to let the sources speak for themselves, there are times he injects more confusion than clarification. For instance, despite illustrating Robinson’s commitment to a traditional sexual ethic on multiple occasions, Smith references an allegation from longtime Dodgers’ reporter Roger Kahn that implicated Robinson with multiple extramarital affairs (198–99). Smith reports the accusations from Kahn, but moves on without any kind of clarification for the reader on whether or not they should believe the charges or the narrative of moral fortitude they just read.
This criticism notwithstanding, this is an excellent introduction to the life of one of the most significant figures in American history—it would pair well with a copy of Robinson’s last autobiography, I Never Had It Made (1972).
Samuel L. Young (Ph.D, Baylor University) is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in History at Baylor University.
Jon Meacham, “Jackie Robinson’s Inner Struggle,” July 20, New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/books/review/jackie-robinson-inner-struggle.html ↑
Ed Henry, 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017) and Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb, Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017). ↑
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons