42: 3 Lessons From Former Dodgers Owner Branch Rickey
This weekend I had the pleasure of watching 42, the story of Jackie Robinson’s journey into Major League Baseball. I won’t provide any spoilers (can you do that to a biographical movie?), but I will say that I was extremely pleased.
As a Black man who is passionate about racial solidarity and the multi-ethnic church, it’s always moving to watch movies that deal with the history of race relations between Blacks and Whites in the United States. Every time I sit and watch, I’m reminded of all my forefathers endured, how far we have come as a nation, and how far we have to go.
I’m also reminded that not all White people were as racist or evil as we are often led to believe. Many were racist, but not all. Take a glance at a history book and it will become clear that Whites played an instrumental role in the Civil Rights movement.
As I just alluded to, there is still much work to be done. We have not arrived. Racism still exists and always will until our Savior returns to consummate his marriage with the church. Racism doesn’t go away with the times nor does it cease to exist when we change time zones.
Racism does not care what color or gender you are. Why? Because racism is sin, and sin does not show partiality based on eras, time zones, gender, or ethnicity. It relentlessly seeks to attack and devour every breathing and living human being.
Since there is much work to be done, we can learn from pioneers of the past. Although we can learn an enormous amount from Jackie Robinson in this movie, if the portrayal of Branch Rickey was accurate, there are 3 lessons we can learn from the former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
1. People sin because we’re human, not because of our ethnicity.
Romans 3:22b-23 is clear that there is no distinction. All have sinned, therefore, all sin. But do we really understand the implications of this verse? Ask yourself how many times you have been tempted to link a sinful act to a person’s skin color. First, you notice a particular sinful pattern in a few people of a particular ethnicity. Then, you soon begin to think that certain groups of people are the way they are because of their color.
Now when you encounter said group of people, you already have opinions about them based solely on the color of their skin. If they happen to prove you wrong, you may accept them, although in the back of your mind, you still believe that they are going to turn out the way you thought they would. Why? It’s all because of the color of their skin. This is at the heart of racism.
Branch Rickey throughout the movie recognized that Jackie Robinson’s desire to retaliate had nothing to do with the reality that he was Black. It had every thing to do with him being a man, a son of Adam. We must constantly check ourselves as we interact across racial lines. The Gospel says that all have sin, therefore, treating some as though they are worst than others based on the color of their skin is out of step with the Gospel.
2. Don’t be afraid to ‘rock the boat.’
Often we “Christianize” our cowardice in the name of peace. We claim we don’t want to hurt people, but in reality we fear people, allowing our need for their acceptance to enslave us (Proverbs 29:25). Therefore, we are no longer free, left enchained by the opinions of others and unable to follow our Lord Jesus. Jesus made it clear that following him would not always result in peace (Matthew 10:34-39). The Gospels also testify to the fact that Jesus did not seek controversy nor did he run from it.
Branch Rickey was not afraid to ‘rock the boat.’ He knew persecution was coming, yet, he was determined to do what he knew was right. Although it was clear that a concern of his was financial gain, it seems that faith played a major role in helping him navigate through the controversy that surrounded. I’m not saying we should pursue controversy, but we can’t runaway from it when living out the implications of the Gospel demands we face it. Some have suggested that controversy divides the body, but I would argue that if it is done in love, controversy results in more authentic unity.
3. Faith should impact practice.
Branch Rickey was a man of deep faith. One of my favorite scenes in the movie shows Rickey in his office making his case as to why he should add Robinson to the Dodgers roster. After arguing from a business stand point why it would be a good move to sign Robinson, Rickey fictionally says, “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.”
In the early to mid 1900s, there seemed to be a disconnection between faith and practice for most evangelicals especially in regards to social issues such as racism. This is not an old problem but one that Christians still struggle with. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Now, sirs! Any kind of faith in Christ which does not change your life is the faith of devils, and will take you where devils are, but will never take you to heaven.” Spurgeon realized that the Gospel has strong implications on how a believer lives and views all of life. If a believer’s faith is not changing their life, something is terribly wrong.
The portrayal of Rickey in 42 suggests that he strongly agreed with Spurgeon. Rickey heavily depended on his faith as he thought through how to view Robinson as a man and how to respond to the persecution they both faced as they set out to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Without Rickey and Robinson’s faith, I’m not sure they would have been able to successfully break the color barrier in the league as early as they did. Perhaps it would have taken a lot longer.
Conclusion: 42 and Christianity
Branch Rickey famously said, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.” It was particularly refreshing to watch a movie out of Hollywood that portrayed the positive effect Christianity had on such an important event in history. I’m thankful for the faith of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. Although it was clear that money was a motivation for Rickey’s action, it was equally clear that it was not his only motivation. Rickey had deep convictions and those convictions were rooted in his Christian faith. Without it, I’m not sure how long it would have taken to break the color barrier in the MLB. There is much to learn from this movie that I didn’t have time to flush out.