Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero
Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb
Just two years prior to Jackie Robinson’s death, New York literary giant Random House turned down the chance to publish the retired Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer’s memoir. Why? Because he insisted the book address not only his career as a professional athlete but also his work beyond the ballpark.
Based on that factoid alone, it’s safe to say that the principled Jackie Robinson would highly approve of this appreciative new biography by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb.
Surprisingly, Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography devotes just one chapter to the iconic Brooklyn infielder’s nine seasons with the Dodgers. In contrast, the authors devote four full chapters and portions of several others to Robinson’s work in civil rights, politics and business.
It’s undoubtedly as Robinson would want it.
In 1955, the Dodgers won their only World Series prior to the franchise’s heartbreaking (for Brooklyn residents) move to Los Angeles in 1958. But that championship receives not even a passing mention from Long and Lamb. Not a single word.
True, Robinson did hit a weak .182 in 22 at bats in that seven-game World Series against the rival New York Yankees. His most memorable moment on the diamond may have been his steal of home plate just under the tag of New York great Yogi Berra in game one of the series.
But that’s not why the reader won’t encounter a focus on what for fans of the team affectionately known as “De Bums” was the apex of the its time in Brooklyn: the Dodgers’ long-awaited vanquishing of the American League champion Yankees by winning Game 7 of the Series in the Bronx, 2-0.
Instead, the emphasis that Long and Lamb bring potently in Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography is on an in-depth examination of the faith of the boundary-breaking hero. It deftly portrays the impact of the man born in Georgia, reared in Pasadena, and brought to the nation’s consciousness 70 years ago this spring at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
That’s when Robinson became the first African American Major League ballplayer of the modern era when he debuted under the watchful eye and courageous leadership of Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey, a fellow Methodist believer. In a game on April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field, Robinson broke the unwritten but vigorously applied code that no non-white player would take the field for a Major League Baseball ballclub.
Mining a wide variety of sources, Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography provides a captivating portrayal of the way in which the Christian faith–rooted in Robinson’s mother’s Methodist tradition, nurtured by a young Methodist pastor named Karl Downs (who appears frequently in this book) and refined by his partnership with his wife Rachel–impacted his breaking of the color barrier. Later, the author’s portray how Robinson’s post-baseball civil rights work and engagement in business and politics was influenced by his beliefs. In addition to telling Robinson’s own story through the lens of the Christian faith, the book is also an exceptional overview of issues of race and justice in America from the inception of the Civil Rights era through Robinson’s death in 1972. Long and Lamb show a significant depth of understanding not only Robinson and his faith, but also broader concerns of race, class, privilege and American religious and political history.
“It is simply impossible to understand Robinson in depth without tending to his Christian belief in God,” Long and Lamb write. “Only when we see faith in every part of Robinson’s life – from his birth to his death – will we understand that Robinson was a man for whom Christian faith acted as a source of inspiration and motivation, comfort and strength, wisdom and direction.”
Readers of Arnold Rampersad’s fine work titled Jackie Robinson: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) will have encountered portions of Robinson’s spiritual journey. Long and Lamb, however, have mined unpublished letters and other sources including an “untitled manuscript on faith” which Robinson had written and which is housed in the Library of Congress. Their broad range of sources give depth and texture to the portrait of what animated Robinson’s life and work.
Long and Lamb characterize Robinson’s theology as being one of “calling for personal responsibility of African Americans themselves” even as he challenged people in power – including presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon, Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and businessman-turned-politician Nelson Rockefeller, among others – to work legislatively and economically to change the systems and policies that led to poverty, especially among African Americans in the United States.
One of the book’s most memorable passages is from an address that Robinson gave to the Fourth General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 1963 when that largely white denomination (at the time) presented him its Churchmanship Award.
Robinson “delivered a stirring speech that opened with a story about an African American boy whose family, like young Jackie’s, had moved into a white community that demonstrated a frigid attitude toward blacks,” Long and Lamb write. “When the young boy tried to attend Sunday school at a church across the street from his home, an usher denied him entrance, telling him that the church was for whites only.” In the story, the boy sat down on the church step and began to cry.
“ ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Robinson said, ‘do you know what God did? He sat right down at the little boy’s side and started to cry, too. And do you know why? Because that was one church God had been trying to get into for many, many years.’ ”
Long and Lamb continue on, “This was Jackie Robinson’s God, one who is faithfully present to, and suffers with, the captive, the oppressed, the victims of racial prejudice.”
Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography concludes with a poignant scene from Robinson’s funeral, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets to say goodbye to a man who was about far more than just baseball.
“Today, when visitors pay their respects at the grave and look at his tombstone, they can read Jackie Robinson’s approach to life: ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’”
Robinson’s life did, indeed, have impact on others. So much so that his number – 42 – is retired by every Major League Baseball team, never to be worn again.
Random House’s decision back in 1970 to publish a baseball-only book later became G.P. Putnam’s Sons Publishing’s gain. I Never Had It Made: The Autobiography of Jackie Robinson was published in October of 1972 with co-author Alfred Duckett and it powerfully explored the political, economic, and civil rights terrain Robinson traveled and which Random House reportedly wanted to steer clear of. I remember reading that book as a 12-year-old and having my eyes awakened to matters much more important even than my beloved baseball and one of its all-time greats.
In Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, Long and Lamb have done much the same thing for readers in this era. And we are better off for it.
Jeff Crosby is publisher at InterVarsity Press in Downers Grove, Illinois. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writing of Lewis B. Smedes. He and his wife, Cindy, reside in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.