Baseball, Race, and Faith

By Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Like many baseball fans, I have been eagerly watching the early part of the baseball season. This is despite the Reds terrible start (three wins and fifteen losses, if you’re counting). But there have been some bright spots in the season so far. One was this past Sunday, when Major League baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. It was a special day, with all teams having special festivities and every player from every team wearing the number 42 to celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was of course the first black man to play in the major leagues, breaking the “color barrier” on April 15th, 1947.

The story of Robinson was truly a remarkable one. He was an incredibly gifted athlete, who starred in five sports in high school: football, basketball, baseball, track, and tennis. He went on to star in three of those sports in college at UCLA,  later playing two professionally, and becoming a Hall of Famer in one (baseball). Yet while many still celebrate his amazing athletic feats, he is of course remembered today primarily as the man who broke the color barrier in baseball.

As a racial trailerblazer, Robinson endured serious persecution throughout his life. Even before he entered baseball, he was nearly court-marshaled while in the military for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus due to his race (sound familiar?). Then, despite his rare talent, he was banned from playing in the major leagues and was instead relegated to the all-black Negro Leagues. When he finally was invited to play in the major leagues, he was routinely cursed at and spit on by fans, while often receiving death threats as well. Other players (even on his own team) threatened not to play if he played, and other teams said they would strike if they were forced to play against him. When they did play against him, players sometimes intentionally tried to injure him through dirty slides or running him over on the field.

Thankfully there were some players and coaches who encouraged Robinson to keep playing. Perhaps even more important, though, was his deep Methodist faith, which was also shared by the owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who courageously signed him to play for his team. Many don’t know it, but the influence of the Methodist faith is a major part of Jackie Robinson’s story. As historian Chris Lamb says, “It was the engine that drove and sustained him as he shattered racial barriers on and off the baseball diamond.”

As fellow Methodists, we continue to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s legacy of standing up against racism. Sadly, though, there were two events that happened in the same week in which Jackie Robinson was honored that showed that racism is something that is still with us today and is not simply the relic of a bygone age.

In one incident in, a black teenager in a suburban Michigan town overslept and missed his bus to school. Being responsible, he attempted to figure out how he could get picked up by the bus somewhere else. Unable to track his bus’s route, he instead decided to try to walk but wasn’t sure of the directions and stopped for help. When he knocked on the door and tired to explain that he was lost, the owner chased the 14 year-old away, taking out a gun to shoot at him repeatedly. The home is in a fairly upscale, middle-class neighborhood, which is relatively peaceful and safe. So there was no reason to automatically assume that someone in the neighborhood would be trying to rob or harm the house in broad daylight. Except that the teenager was black and the city is 90% white. At least, that seems to have been the thinking of the man who chased and shot at him, who happens to be former city firefighter.

In another incident, at a Starbucks in an upscale neighborhood of Philadelphia, two black men arrived for a business meeting with their friend, only to realize they showed up slightly early. They both decided to wait to order a drink, instead wanting to wait on their friend to arrive. When one of the men asked to use the restroom, an employee asked them to leave, despite the fact that they had done nothing out of the ordinary. However, after the men said they were just waiting for their friend and didn’t want to leave, the employee called 911, panicked by their presence. Shortly thereafter, six police officers showed up and arrested the men for trespassing, putting them in handcuffs in front of other customers. They were handcuffed and taken into custody despite pleas from several white customers who said the men did nothing wrong.  Many of the white customers also said they have routinely done the same thing at the store—wait for friends or use the restroom without buying a drink— and have never been asked to leave.  Like the first story, the only mitigating factor seems to be race. And to bring this second story close to home, the employee that called the police is from right here in Dayton—a graduate of Sinclair and Wright State. Thus racism is not just a problem somewhere far away, but even right in our won town.

In both of these incidents, the people involved seem to have been treated differently because they were black. Our country has made great strides to combat racism, through the courage of people like Jackie Robinson. But black and brown people still don’t have the same experience as white Americans. They are still often stereotyped, not hired for jobs, or looked at suspiciously because of how they look. Black and brown persons are also subject to higher rates of incarceration and joblessness, even when adjusted for population size and other factors. Even when they are convicted of the same crimes they are given longer sentences and even when they have the same level of education, they are often not hired for the same jobs.

As people of faith God wants us to live in a world where people are looked at impartially, regardless of race or ethnicity. And because we live in a world where that’s not always true—where people are still looked at differently because of race— we have a responsibility to ask tough questions of our society and ourselves. Like how does our society discriminate against persons of color? How do we look the other way at the racial injustice in our society? How do we respond when people make racially questionable jokes or statements that may have racist undertones? Or, perhaps most importantly, how do we have subconscious biases that come out when we see people who look different than us?

These are indeed tough questions, even controversial questions, but they are necessary questions. Because just as Jackie Robinson was compelled to stand up against racism due to his Methodist faith, we are called—commanded— to do the same thing.


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