It’s often said that sports provide a respite from real life, a reprieve from the endless churn of culture’s controversies.
That’s certainly not the case anymore, and I’m not so sure it ever was in the first place.
That’s because sports, in good times and bad, have long been a microcosm of culture, a mirror of man and his era.
Once upon a time, the then Brooklyn Dodgers made baseball history by signing UCLA standout Jackie Robinson, the first black player to join Major League Baseball. It was groundbreaking and even scandalous according to some – but the muscular move was thanks to Branch Rickey, a devout Christian who was committed to doing what was right.
Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey’s biographer, once referred to the executive as “Baseball’s ferocious Christian gentleman” – an apt description of a sly but morally upright leader who was always looking to simultaneously improve his teams and live out his faith.
Rickey’s conviction on race equality long predated his recruitment of Robinson. The year was 1903, and the future baseball pioneer was just 21-years-old and coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University.
It was springtime, and the team had just arrived at the hotel in South Bend, Ind. They were preparing to square off against Notre Dame. Everything was in order, that was until the clerk at the front desk told the team’s catcher, Charles Thomas, that he couldn’t stay. Thomas, who Rickey had personally recruited, was the lone black player on the team.
Branch Rickey convinced management to let the young man sleep in his room. But later that night, the coach found Thomas crying and mumbling.
“It’s my skin,” he sobbed. “If only I could wipe off the color, they could see I am a man like everybody else!”
“We will beat this one day,” Rickey assured him. But for now, the coach told him, he needed to “buck up” and tackle the task at hand.
Over 40 years later, Rickey would end baseball’s segregation and incur all kinds of venom and wrath while doing so. But he said he really had no choice.
“I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own,” he said.
Sitting in his Dodger’s office with Jackie Robinson about to sign his Dodgers’ contract, the “ferocious Christian gentleman” read to the star about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from a book titled, “Life of Christ.”
Rickey then put the book down, and looked eye-to-eye with his new player who would soon integrate the game.
“We can’t fight our way through this, Jackie,” he began. “We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners. No umpires. Very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we convince the world that I’m doing this because you are a great ball player and a fine gentleman.”
I couldn’t help but think about Branch Rickey’s principled and faith-inspired/rooted move when news broke that his beloved team recently went in the entirely opposite direction, and horribly so.
A club once known for doing things the right way and for the right reasons, invited the heretical and crass group of drag performers known as the “Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence” to the team’s “Pride Night” celebration. These are basically men who mock nuns, Catholics and anyone who holds fast to Christ’s teachings.
After the Catholic Church and other faith leaders spoke out, the Dodgers reversed course and rescinded the invitation. But only for a short while. The team soon changed its mind again, reextended the invitation – and apologized to the drag performers.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles responded:
“The decision to honor a group that clearly mocks the Catholic faith and makes light of the sincere and holy vocations of our women religious who are an integral part of our Church is what has caused disappointment, concern, anger, and dismay from our Catholic community.”
In the end, sports reflect the times – and our times are upside down and inside out.
Branch Rickey has been gone for 58 years, but his pep talk of sorts to Jackie Robinson nevertheless serves as good advice, perspective, and encouragement for Christians navigating and engaging a corrupt and post Christian culture.
Let’s break it down:
“We can’t fight our way through this” – Jackie was warned not to physically lash out, and nor should Christians in these days. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” wrote the apostle Paul (Ephesians 6:12).
“We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners. No umpires. Very few newspaperman” – Of course, “God’s Army” is sufficient, but all the powers of culture today stand in opposition to Christ’s teaching. We don’t need to fret about it – but we should be aware of it.
“I’m afraid many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position” – We do face hostility, and holding tight in tenuous times can be tough – but there is no other choice.
“We can win only if we convince the world that I’m doing this because you are a great ball player and a fine gentleman” – Christians will win in the end, if not in this world, then in the next. Our charge is not to be successful – but faithful.
Branch Rickey died in December of 1965 shortly after collapsing while giving a speech on courage – a wonderful Christian trait and something the current Dodger brass and all of us need plenty more of if we’re to thrive in 2023 and beyond.