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Here's to you, Mr. Robinson!

David Burchett
David Burchett
2011 15 Apr

April 15 is generally not my favorite day of the year. Tax day is never fun for a guy who is organizationally challenged. My idea of being prepared is having everything in one gigantic box. (Bonus points if the lid will close on it) This year I caught a break because of some local holiday in the nation’s capital. The day of reckoning is now April 18. But April 15 has been redeemed for me because it is a wonderful day for baseball fans.

Jackie Robinson made his major league debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on this date in 1947. It was a historic and significant day for baseball but maybe more so for our country. You can argue that the American civil rights movement was truly ignited when Robinson came to bat in Dodger Blue. The journey for Robinson was difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst.

Many Dodgers players, mostly Southerners led by Dixie Walker, threatened to walk if forced to play with a black player. That ended when Dodger management let them know in no uncertain terms that they could keep walking all the way to the unemployment line. I often write about the pain that is caused by “bad” or thoughtless Christians. Can you imagine the pain that Robinson felt to have his teammates reject him for only one reason and for a reason over which he had no control?

But one teammate reacted in a way that I wish all serious and thoughtful Christians would emulate. Team captain Pee Wee Reese was an unlikely ally for Robinson. He was born in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, and the odds were that Reese would participate or even lead the boycott against a black player. But the diminutive Pee Wee Reese proved to be a giant of a man one day in Cincinnati. During infield practice the Redleg players were screaming at Jackie with all of the usual hateful epithets. And then the venom was distributed to Reese. They were yelling things at him like “How can you play with this [epithet]?” as Jackie stood uncomfortably at first base.

“Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while,” Robinson recalled, as quoted in his biography “Jackie Robinson,” by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf). “He didn’t say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that.” The hecklers ceased their attack. “I will never forget it,” Robinson said. A silence fell over the Reds dugout and the fans witnessing this amazing act of grace.

At Reese’s funeral, Joe Black, another Major League Baseball black pioneer, said: “Pee Wee helped make my boyhood dream come true to play in the Majors, the World Series. When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a White guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts.”

Robinson later wrote this sentiment to Reese in a book inscription.

“Pee Wee whether you are willing to admit what you being just a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant. May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours.”

We need a lot more Pee Wee Reeses in the body of Christ. We need men and women who are willing to step up for others when it may not be the best action for personal gain. We need men who are brave enough to look hatred and bigotry in the eye and call it by its name. April 15 was a day that demonstrated the greatness and courage of Jackie Robinson. It also reminds us of how one man did the right thing for his teammate. We need men who have the courage to emulate both Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in our walk with Jesus. If Pee Wee Reese was willing to risk his reputation for the cause of team and winning a World Series how much more should we be willing to risk for one another to further the cause of Christ? The Apostle Paul had some good advice to accomplish that dream.

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (Gal 6, Msg)

I want to be willing to stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. As I meditate on the gift of grace and redemption I received through Jesus I wonder … how can I do anything else?