Race, Baseball, and the Church: Proximity

by
February 27, 2015

Among the ritual sounds of spring, there are none more significant to me than the popping of baseball glove leather and the bat connecting with the ball. Baseball is uniquely a game of particularities, people, and place. At any moment I can think back to my Brevard Avenue backyard pitching to my dad or re-live the thrill of a Friday night game at tiny Joe Marshall field in Montgomery, Alabama.

The familial and cultural rootedness of baseball makes its fans both nostalgic about the game and zealous for its history, heroes, and statistics. The game itself is timeless, not bound by a clock, but the past is always present in baseball. Tragically, some of the greatest players to ever compete in the national pastime were never permitted to put on a Major League baseball uniform. John Henry Lloyd, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge, and Judy Johnson were a few of the players who were never allowed to display that they were the equal or better of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mathewson, and Groves on the baseball diamond.

The de facto baseball color line began in post-Civil War America. Slavery had been officially outlawed by the 13th Amendment but not much else had changed regarding racist attitudes and practices in our nation. Legislation was powerless in eradicating racial animosity and fear. While the Negro Leagues heroically blossomed in the insidious environment of the Jim Crow segregation era and became a life-giving source of pride in the black community, the sad reality is that racial hatred resulted in some of the game’s immortals being eclipsed in the national consciousness of many Americans.

In defiance of the other Major League general managers and owners, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, thus breaking Major League Baseball’s longstanding color barrier. Rickey would later say, “Of course the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln made the southern Negro slave free, but it never did make the white man morally free. He remained a slave to his inheritances. And some are even today” (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet, Atlanta, GA, January 20, 1956). Rickey’s courageous act was 17 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There is no greater proof that the Negro League stars were every bit the equal or superiors of their white Major League counterparts than the success former Negro League players had in Major League baseball after the color barrier was broken. Henry Aaron of the Indianapolis Clowns, Ernie Banks of the Kansas City Monarchs, Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants, Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, and Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons all became stars and have been inducted in Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, one the most thrilling memories of my childhood came on April 8, 1974 when Henry Aaron hit homerun 715 and listening to Milo Hamilton declare, “There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!”

Branch Rickey meticulously planned and shaped the master narrative for integrating the national pastime. Rickey explained that he knew he had to find “a man of exceptional courage, and exceptional intelligence, a man of basically fine character.” Rickey said of Jackie Robinson, “God was with me when I picked Jackie. I don’t think any other man could have done what he did those first two or three years.” Rickey believed that integration was God’s will and asserted, “I believe that a man can play baseball as coming to him from a call from God” (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club”).

After reading Slave and Citizen by Frank Tannenbaum, a professor at Columbia University, Rickey found what he believed was one of the keys to the successful integration of baseball—proximity. He told his assistant Arthur Mann “This is it!” and quoted from Tannenbaum’s book, “Physical proximity, slow cultural intertwining … the slow process of moral identification work their way against all seemingly absolute systems of values and prejudices” (Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, 154-155).

In 1956, in a speech to the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” in Atlanta, Georgia Rickey explained how proximity worked to integrate baseball. Rickey told a story publically for the first time about sitting with Clay Hopper, Robinson’s first manager with the Montreal Royals, watching a spring training game. Robinson made a play in the field that Rickey described as “one of those tremendous remarkable plays that very few people can make.” Rickey asked Hopper, “Did you ever see a man make a play to beat it?” Rickey explains Hopper’s response,

Now this fellow comes from Greenwood, Mississippi. … He took me and shook me and his face that far from me and he said, “Do you really think that a ‘nigger’ is a human being, Mr. Rickey?”

Rickey did not answer Hopper because as his biographer Lee Lowenfish explains, “There was nothing in Rickey’s formidable arsenal of intellect and vocabulary that could undo in a few words what generations of prejudice had created within the heart and mind” (Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, 392). Hopper begged Rickey not to put Robinson on his team, and Rickey told Hopper he had no choice in the matter. Rickey explains that proximity accomplished six months later what words could not,

[Hopper] said to me, “I want to take back what I said to you last spring.” He said, “I’m ashamed of it.” “Now,” he said, “you may have plans for him to be on your club,” – and he was, “but,” he said, “if you don’t have plans to have him on the Brooklyn club,” he said, “I would like to have him back in Montreal.” And then he told me that he was not only a great ball player good enough for Brooklyn, but he said that he was a fine gentleman.

Proximity. Proximity, says Tannenbaum, will solve this thing if you can have enough of it (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet, Atlanta, GA, January 20, 1956).

Rickey believed in the power of proximity. Put the right man with the right ability and the right character together practicing, traveling, and playing with other men, as an equal, in the pursuit of a goal bigger than any of them individually, and racial animosity would begin to lessen. He believed that shared struggle and living life together would produce empathy for one another. Proximity was an idea that resonated with Rickey because of his Christian conviction about the equality of all of God’s image bearers.

The church of Jesus Christ ought to be the preeminent display of proximity in a fallen world, but sadly, in contemporary America, it is not. Studies reveal that the church in America remains one of the nations most segregated institutions (Scheitle, C., & Dougherty, K. (2010) Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations. Sociological Inquiry, 80(3), 405-423). The unity of the church as “one new man” across ethnic and cultural boundaries is a foundational sign of gospel reconciliation (Eph 2:15).

Living and striving together for the kingdom of Christ in local churches as cruciform community, “the household of God,” is how we learn to love and listen to one another (Eph 2:19). We are called to walk in line with the gospel together in local churches that display reconciliation with God by reconciliation with one another. When that happens, the cultural challenges involving race and ethnicity will not be political talking points and abstractions but family conversations.

Proximity, brothers and sisters in Christ, proximity.

Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet,
Atlanta, Georgia, January 20, 1956. Broadcast on WERD 860 AM radio.

(Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Branch Rickey Papers)

 


David E. Prince
David E. Prince is the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.