The Faith Formation of a Baseball Star
A Review of
Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson
Gary Scott Smith
Hardcover: Eerdmans, 2022
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Reviewed by Benjamin A. Simpson
If you are a fan of professional baseball, you know the number 42 is special. It was worn by Jackie Robinson. That number is displayed in every professional stadium, has been retired by every club, and is worn by every player, coach, manager, and umpire each year on April 15th, “Jackie Robinson Day,” the day Robinson made his professional debut in 1947.
Jackie Robinson is known as a baseball player and as a key figure in American history. Robinson, an African American, broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 for his achievements on and off the field, including his influence on American society and culture.
In Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson, Gary Scott Smith examines the influence of Jackie Robinson’s faith on his formation and maturation as a baseball player, husband, father, and activist. Most have a firm handle on the athletic prowess Robinson displayed as a multi-sport athlete during his collegiate years, as a player in the Negro Leagues, and in his standout career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Most are familiar with the struggles he faced as an African American pioneer in Major League Baseball.
Fewer know about the Christian influences that shaped Robinson in his early years, anchored him during his playing days, and shaped him for his post-professional years as a speaker, writer, and advocate for equal rights, racial justice, and greater opportunity for African Americans in the United States. As a historian, Smith brings forth these details, focusing on the importance of Robinson’s faith for understanding his remarkable life and legacy.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born near Cairo, Georgia in 1919 to Jerry and Mallie Robinson. He was the grandson of slaves, and the fifth and youngest child born to his family. Mallie Robinson had a firm faith in God. She believed God was watching over her, sustaining her during hard times. But her marriage to Jerry was not stable and living conditions in Georgia were poor. She had been told by her half brother, Burton Thomas, about the promise of California. On May 21, 1920, Mallie, her five children, and seven extended family members moved to Pasadena, where Jackie would grow up.
Mallie imparted her Christian faith to her children at home. In Pasadena, Mallie joined the Scott Methodist Church. The children were required to go with her. In his teenage years, Jackie did not want to participate in church life and argued with his mother. During his early teens, Jackie joined a gang and was involved in delinquent activity. Jackie became involved in athletics and proved to be an outstanding athlete.
Jackie Robinson’s disposition toward faith changed in 1938 when Karl Downs became the pastor of Scott Methodist Church. Smith writes that Downs “combined evangelical theology with social progressivism, [changing] Robinson’s life by befriending him, leading him to Christ, nurturing the faith he relied on heavily for the rest of his life, counseling him, and influencing his view of racial issues” (24). Later in life, Robinson stated he experienced a spiritual awakening during this period, gained direction, and that Reverend Downs transformed his life.
Karl Downs spoke prophetically against racial injustice. His example shaped and inspired Robinson. Under Downs’s influence, Robinson reached the conviction that racism could be overcome through sports. After high school, Robinson would attend Pasadena Junior College, where he excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. He then went to UCLA, where he continued his involvement in these sports. He was acclaimed. Robinson met Rachel Isum at UCLA, who would become his wife, a pillar in difficulty, and a champion of his legacy after his death.
After his time at UCLA, Robinson worked various jobs. In March of 1942, he was drafted into the United States Army. He spoke against discriminatory policies while enlisted. After being discharged, he worked briefly at Samuel Huston College before joining the Kansas City Monarchs, a team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson became known for his talents on the field and for his moral courage and strong character. All three characteristics contributed to his drawing the attention of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Branch Rickey was a pious, devout Christian, formed by the Methodist Church. Though Rickey has been criticized for the way he conducted his “great experiment” with Robinson, breaking the color-barrier and specifically asking Robinson to refrain from retaliation or speaking out early in his playing career, Robinson always expressed admiration and appreciation for Rickey. He believed Rickey had changed his life, changed baseball, and changed the country by giving him the opportunity to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Smith’s account of the years leading up to Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball career is golden, revealing insight into Robinson’s faith. Smith also helps us to understand the faith influences that shaped Branch Rickey, a vital figure for this transformational moment in American history. Smith includes perspectives from all angles, including sports writers and other commentators who welcomed, opposed, or were changed through Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball. We learn about Robinson’s standout career, and how his excellence on the field contributed to his wide acceptance, as well as changed attitudes regarding race which occurred in the lives of teammates, fans, and the broader public because of Robinson’s public witness.
Robinson did have a career after baseball. He was a preacher, businessman, speaker, and writer. He was politically active and socially engaged. Smith provides insight into this period of Robinson’s life as well, helping us to see that his personal convictions regarding racial and social justice were always connected to his formation as a Christian, whether as part of Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena, Nazarene Congregational Church in Brooklyn, or North Stamford Congregational Church in Connecticut. Though Robinson was not a regular church attender and did not speak in detail regarding his theological convictions, Smith traces Robinson’s moral center, endurance, and character to his formation in the Mainline Protestant tradition. The influence of Mainline Protestantism was evidenced throughout Robinson’s life.
American society is currently passing through a period of great upheaval. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, professional sports leagues responded. Athletes, many of them African American, became involved in public discourse. Some were celebrated as they lifted their voices. Others were told to “stick to sports.”
Jackie Robinson reminds us that there has long been overlap between professional athletics and the prevailing social currents, and that athletics create opportunities for athletes to use their voices and perspectives to address cultural and societal problems. They can shift attitudes and influence policy. Athletes can advocate for causes and positions, and their advocacy can result in transformation.
Smith’s account of Robinson helps us have a greater understanding of his life and its significance, deepening our appreciation for him as a person shaped by the Christian tradition. But it also helps us to understand our moment, the importance of family in faith formation, the role of the church and its ministers in influencing our moral imagination, and the place of sports as a vehicle not only for recreation and fun, but as a crucible for character. It also helps us to see, in Robinson, ways the Christian tradition has and can shape a person with athletic gifts who, later in life, draws upon their faith for strength, courage, and wisdom as they advocate in support of causes that align with God and the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, announced, and proclaimed.
Benjamin A. Simpson
Benjamin A. Simpson serves as the Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. You can read his work online: www.benjaminasimpson.com.
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