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Sunday, July 21, 2013

God and Baseball: 42

It's not everyday that I pull for the Dodgers, but that's what I found myself doing while watching "42," the recently-released movie about Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey and Dodger-great Jackie Robinson. The movie focuses primarily on Robinson's rookie season, highlighting the abuse he took from fans, ballplayers, and coaches, as well as the support he received from other fans, some (not all) of his teammates, and Branch Rickey.

What the movie skirts around, however, how Robinson and Rickey's Christian faith played a central role in this real-life drama. Rickey, for example, was a devout Methodist who wouldn't attend games on Sunday. He believed that it was God’s will that he integrate baseball and saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation. Moreover, he was looking for a man “with guts enough not to fight back.” He knew that integrating professional baseball would take more than pure ability. He knew the attacks would be awful, and if the player he chose retaliated, his experiment would fail. So why did Rickey choose Robinson? Because of Robinson's devout faith ("Movie About Robinson Misses Christian Dimension"):
Rickey knew he must find someone whose behavior on and off the field would be exemplary and who believed “turning the other cheek” was not just the practical thing to do but the right thing. In their historic meeting, to underscore the spiritual dimension of the undertaking, Rickey pulled out a book by Giovanni Papini, titled Life of Christ. He opened to the passage about the Sermon on the Mount and read it aloud. 
We know that Robinson’s passionate sense of justice had gotten him into trouble earlier in life. But the patient mentoring of pastor Karl Downs convinced him that Christ’s command to “resist not evil” wasn’t a cowardly way out but a profoundly heroic stance. 
When he met Rickey, Robinson was prepared for what lay ahead and agreed. But it was a brutally difficult undertaking. Robinson got down on his knees many nights during those first two years, asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back or say something vicious in return.
Most of this, unfortunately, was not in the movie. To be sure, the movie does make references to Rickey's faith. It's Robinson's faith that it ignores.  This is not to say that the movie is not compelling. It is. Indeed, when I update my list of the top all-time baseball movies, it will be on the list. But it would've been nice if moviegoers knew when they left the theater that Robinson was able to resist the goading of his opponents not just by slamming his bat against the wall in the dugout walkway but also because he believed God provided him the strength to do so.

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