We often don't really appreciate the legacy of pioneers. They take the risks, endure the hardships, and suffer greatly to pursue their goals. The rest of us, the settlers, come along and enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. Such a pioneer was Martin Luther King. Today we have set aside a day to consider the pioneering work of Dr. King. Many people have benefited from the hardships that Martin Luther King endured to communicate the message of racial equality.

Another pioneer, perhaps equally important in some ways, made his difficult journey sixty years ago. It is hard for me to imagine that Major League Baseball had no black players just seven years prior to my arrival on this planet. Jackie Robinson made his major league debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It was a historic and significant day for baseball but maybe more so for our country. You can argue that the American civil rights movement was truly ignited when Robinson came to bat in Dodger Blue. The journey for Robinson was difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst. 

Many Dodgers players, mostly Southerners led by Dixie Walker, threatened to walk out if forced to play with a black player. That ended when Dodger management let them know in no uncertain terms that they could keep walking to the unemployment line. I often write about the pain that is caused by "bad" or thoughtless Christians. Can you imagine the pain that Robinson felt to have his teammates reject him for only one reason? The color of his skin?

But one teammate reacted in a way that I wish all serious and thoughtful Christians would emulate. Team captain Pee Wee Reese was an unlikely ally for Robinson. He was born in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, and the odds were that Reese would be a part of the boycott against a black player. But the diminutive Pee Wee Reese proved to be a giant of a man one day in Cincinnati. During infield practice the Redleg players were screaming at Jackie with all of the usual hateful epithets. And then the venom was distributed to Reese. They were yelling things at him like "How can you play with this (epithet)?", as Jackie stood uncomfortably at first base. Pee Wee went over to him and put his arm around him and smiled. A silence fell over the Reds dugout and the fans witnessing this amazing act of grace, Jackie smiled back. 

Reese_robinson

Photo courtesy of Baseball Almanac

At Reese's funeral, Joe Black, another Major League Baseball black pioneer, said: "Pee Wee helped make my boyhood dream come true to play in the Majors, the World Series. When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a White guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, 'Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.' With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts."  

Robinson later wrote this sentiment to Reese in a book inscription. 

"Pee Wee whether you are willing to admit what you being just a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant. May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours."  

Teammate Carl Erskine had this poignant observation about the impact of Pee Wee Reese on Major League Baseball.

"Think of the guts that (refusing to sign a petition that threatened a boycott if Jackie Robinson joined the team) took. Pee Wee had to go home (to segregated Louisville, Kentucky) and answer to his friends. I told Jackie later that (Reese's gesture) helped my race more than his."

God uses pioneers like Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. We need a lot more like them in the body of Christ. We need men and women who are willing to step up for others when it may not be the best action for personal gain. We need men and women who are brave enough to look hatred and bigotry in the eye and call it by its name. Sixty years ago two pioneers had the courage to step up and be heard. One was in a position of power and one was not. We need men and women who have the courage to emulate both Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in our walk with Jesus. The Apostle Paul had some good advice to accomplish that goal. 

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day's out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ's law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. Gal 6  Msg 

I want to be willing to stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. As I meditate on the gift of grace and redemption I received through the Cross I wonder how I can do anything else? And how can you?

Original publication date: January 15, 2007