The True Jackie Robinson

Major League Baseball is already celebrating the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first black player in the major leagues. On April 15, 1947—when Martin Luther King, Jr. was just 18 years-old—Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. He went on to have one of the most storied careers in baseball, playing in six World Series, batting a .313 lifetime average, and having his jersey retired.

At the new Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City, players and coaches have stopped by to pay homage to the man. “It was great,” Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said. “What’s great is he was a great baseball player [and a] great athlete, but Jackie’s passion was civil rights and equality and more so than baseball. It was more that baseball was just a vehicle for him to use his voice, which is pretty cool to see and actually pretty inspiring.”

What the media seems deliberately to miss about Robinson, however, is that he was also very inspiring when he questioned the Democratic Party and blasted radical Malcolm X. Somehow that, along with the fact that Robinson also was a serious Christian—something foundational to his activism—are left out of the conversation surrounding him.

As a fascinating and well-searched new book points out, Robinson (1919-1972) was outspoken about politics—and his thoughts did not neatly conform to the liberal narrative on race or anything else. In True: the Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson, sports writer Kostya Kennedy reminds readers that while Robinson was a devoted friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a supporter of the civil rights movement, he also voted for Richard Nixon in 1960—and rebuked militant black leader Malcolm X. 

“The Democratic Party, Robinson felt, took the Black vote too quickly for granted,” Kennedy writes, “He thought that perhaps in his dissent he might help spur more urgency on both sides when it came to civil rights. Wary as he was of the creeping right-wing element in the Republican base, neither could he look past the Democrats’ tether to the Dixiecrats of the South.”

Robinson’s endorsement of Nixon cost him. At the time he had been retired from baseball since 1957 and was a goodwill ambassador for the Chock full o’ Nuts coffee company and a columnist for the New York Post. According to True the Nixon endorsement ended Robinson’s Post column and forced “a temporary leave of absence” from Chock full o’ Nuts.

Soon after, Robinson wrote a syndicated column that appeared in places like the New York Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender. According to True, “When Robinson chastised Malcolm X, objecting to his brand of militancy and to his separatist views, Malcolm X responded with unveiled ire in the Amsterdam News. He rebuked Robinson for his allegiance to his ‘white boss’ and his ‘white benefactors’ and for supporting Nixon, and for his general approach.” Malcolm X charged that Robinson would “never take an interest in anything in the Negro community until the white man himself takes an interest in it.”

Robinson shot back: “Coming from you an attack is a tribute.” Robinson added that he was proud of his association with baseball’s Branch Rickey and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. 

True also notes that when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, Robinson “asked that his plaque make no mention of his role in integrating baseball.” Robinson’s wife Rachel later had the plaque changed to describe the tremendous courage Robinson displayed in 1947 and after. True beautifully details Robinson’s decency and grit, revealing him to be a generous yet determined fighter for justice who supported King’s nonviolent approach while making clear that he would “punch back” if assaulted at a civil rights march. Handsome and with the powerful body of a linebacker, Robinson was also a dedicated father and husband and a veteran of World War II.

He was also a Christian. A fascinating and thoroughly researched new book, Strength for the Fight: the Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson, highlights how Robinson’s Christian faith was the rock upon which he built his activism. Author Gary Scott Smith notes that Robinson was not the vocal preacher type, but that “Robinson relied on prayer to guide him and sustain him during his trials.” 

Robinson was particularly influenced by three Methodists—his mother Mallie, pastor Karl Down, and MLB commissioner Branch Rickey, who was pivotal to Robinson desegregating the major leagues. One pastor, Richard Stoll Armstrong, found himself “tremendously impressed by Jackie Robinson’s spiritual depth and theological maturity.”

Both Strength for the Fight and True describe Robinson’s electrifying style of play. Robinson was famously effective at base running, juking, and psychologically tormenting and faking out pitchers to the point they became flabbergasted. Robinson stole 200 bases in his career, 12 of them home plate.

“Seventy-five years ago, Jackie Robinson took the field under incredibly challenging circumstances and unimaginable pressure. Yet through his courage, character, skill, and values, he brought well-needed change to our game and advanced the Civil Rights Movement in our country,” said commissioner of baseball Robert D. Manfred, Jr. in a recent announcement of the upcoming tributes. “During this special anniversary year, it is a top priority for MLB to honor Jackie’s contributions and legacy, recognize the impact Rachel has made through the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and continue to keep Jackie’s memory and values alive for today’s generation of players and fans.”

Let’s also never forget he called Malcolm X a fraud.

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