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What was the Secret of Jackie Robinson's Greatness?

If you happen to watch a Major League Baseball game on TV tonight, you’ll notice something unusual about the players’ uniforms. Every major leaguer will be wearing the number 42.


That’s because 69 years ago today, Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.


It’s almost impossible for us today to imagine what Robinson endured as the big leagues’ first black ballplayer. But his ordeal is captured brilliantly in the biopic film “42,” which came out just a few years ago.


As good as the film is, it all but omits the most significant factor in Jackie Robinson’s ability to turn the other cheek; to endure almost unbearable insults and physical attacks on the field without lashing out himself. That factor was Robinson’s strong Christian faith.


As I note in my book, 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, while he was a student at Pasadena Junior College, “Jackie met a Methodist preacher named Karl Downs. Downs knew that Jackie was a Christian and taught him that exploding in anger was not the Christian answer to injustice. But he explained that a life truly dedicated to Christ was not submissive; on the contrary, it was heroic…. Downs eventually led Jackie to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ. He began to see that the path to justice would be done not with fists and fury but with love and restraint.”


As “42” opens, we see Jackie Robinson sitting in the office of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey as he hears the incredible news that Rickey wants him to play for the Dodgers. Then Rickey acts out the vicious varieties of bigotry Jackie will face from white hotel managers, restaurant waiters, and fellow ballplayers—insults he will have to face with dignity.


How much more dramatic this scene would have been had “42” told the whole story. Rickey knew that Robinson shared his Christian faith, and wanted to reinforce the spiritual dimensions of the battle both men were sure to face. Rickey pulled out a copy of a book by Giovanni Papini, “Life of Christ.” He flipped to the passage in which Papini discusses the Sermon on the Mount. There he referred to Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek” as “the most stupefying of [Jesus’] revolutionary teachings.”


Rickey’s faith told him that injustice had to be fought wherever it was found. As for Jackie Robinson, he believed that God had chosen him for this noble purpose. And he knew that if he committed himself to doing this great thing, God would give him the strength he needed to see it through.


Day after day, Jackie Robinson’s faith fueled his ability to play great baseball. Night after night, he got down on his knees, asking God for strength in the face of unrelenting hatred.


Now the reason that I included Jackie Robinson in a book about some of the greatest men who ever lived is not just because he played great baseball, but because he engaged in a heroic sacrifice. While he did not have to, Jackie Robinson followed Jesus and sacrificed his right to fight back.


If you’ve got young baseball fans in your family, or among your friends, I would highly recommend renting “42,” which is rated PG-13 because of the evil language that’s shouted at Robinson on the ball field. And then I hope you’ll also consider giving them a copy of my book, 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Chuck Colson is in there as well.


If they read the book they’ll learn why Jackie Robinson changed America for the better. He did it by living out, on and off the baseball field, the revolutionary words of Jesus: Turn the other cheek.



This commentary is adapted from one that originally aired on April 15, 2013.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: April 15, 2016

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