How faith sustained Jackie Robinson—both as an athlete and as an activist.
The integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 was a triumph. But it was also a fight. As the first Black major leaguer since the 1880s, Jackie Robinson knew he was not going to be welcomed into America’s pastime with open arms. Anticipating hostility, he promised Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey that he would “turn the other cheek” during his first years in the league, despite his fiercely competitive disposition. Robinson later said that his faith in God had sustained him—giving him the strength he needed to play the game he loved at the highest level without retaliating against the abuse inflicted upon him by opposing players and fans.
Faith was a key component of Robinson’s life, but not in the way we see it with many prominent Christian athletes today. Whereas the Tim Tebows and Clayton Kershaws of the sports world emphasize personal spirituality, Robinson found inspiration in the Bible’s teachings on human dignity and social justice. He grew up a devout Methodist (a heritage he shared with Branch Rickey) and identified with the theological convictions and social concerns of many of his fellow mainline Protestants—especially those of the Black church. While he humbly stated that he could not claim to be a deeply religious man, he spoke frequently in African American congregations and described a special affinity he and other Black Christians felt for the biblical character Job, who had also kept faith despite suffering and injustice. In his eulogy for Robinson, Jesse Jackson described Robinson as a “co-partner of God,” who lived out his faith in his civil rights activism, both during and after his baseball career.
Robinson’s faith will resonate with many Christians who believe, as he did, that “a person can be quite religious and at the same time militant in the defense of his ideals.” This religious biography of Robinson chronicles the important role of faith in his life, from his childhood to his groundbreaking baseball career through his transformative civil rights work, and, in the process, helps to humanize the man who has become a mythic figure in both sports history and American culture.
Table of Contents
Preface Introduction: Jackie Robinson—a Trailblazer and a Man of Faith 1. “God Will Have to Keep His Eye on You”: From Birth to the Negro League (1919–1945) 2. Robinson and Rickey: The Great Experiment (1945) 3. Robinson Smashes the Color Barrier: The Montreal Royals (1946) 4. Robinson Triumphs over Adversity: “The Year All Hell Broke Loose” (1947) 5. “I Am a Religious Man”: Major League Stardom (1948–1956) 6. “Still Slaying Dragons”: Civil Rights Activism (1956–1972) 7. Religion, Politics, and Business: The Pulpit, the Ballot, and the Buck (1956–1972) Conclusion: The Faith and Impact of Jackie Robinson Notes Index
Gary Scott Smith is professor of history emeritus at Grove City College, where he taught from 1978 to 2017. In 2001, he was named Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the author or editor of eighteen books, including Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill and Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents.
“Offers valuable insight into a baseball legend. Smith demonstrates an impressive command over the secondary literature on Robinson, and overcomes the athlete’s reticence to discuss his faith to deliver a meticulous appraisal of Robinson’s understudied religious beliefs.” Publishers Weekly
“In Strength for the Fight, Gary Scott Smith brings a scrupulous historian’s eye for details and patterns, alongside his own abiding concern for faithful Christian practice, to create a compelling fusion. To those of us immersed in the drama of Jackie Robinson’s struggles to break baseball’s color barrier, the focus has always seemed to be on the solitary hero, fueled by a mysterious intensity and strength. Now, with Smith’s well-documented narrative, we see that the mystery of Robinson’s strength was at least in part the result of a deep faith commitment and a sense of having divine justice on his side. On a topic that has received heavy attention (and rightly so), this book accomplishes the rare feat of reinforcing the power of a well-known narrative while deepening our understanding and appreciation of that narrative’s rich spiritual depths.” — Michael R. Stevens professor of American literature at Cornerstone University
“An insightful and uplifting account of the role that faith played in Jackie Robinson’s life on and off the field. Meticulously researched, Strength for the Fight situates Robinson’s faith in wider society and culture as no other book does. It’s a significant contribution not only to our understanding of Robinson but also to the growing field of religion and sports.” — Michael G. Long coauthor of Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography
“Gary Scott Smith’s Strength for the Fight is a wonderful book for two reasons. One, it serves as an excellent introduction to the life and times of Jackie Robinson for people only familiar with his baseball career. Second, for readers who are familiar with Robinson as a baseball player, activist, and staunch champion of the Black community, Strength for the Fight provides the kind of detail that shows Robinson’s life in a new, stark, and fresh light.” — Robert Greene II assistant professor of history at Claflin University
“If, like me, you can’t learn enough about Jackie Robinson, you must read Gary Scott Smith’s book. Its focus on how Robinson’s progressive Christian faith supported his passionate commitment to social justice and his fight against racism, both in the world of baseball and in American society, is a vital contribution to understanding Robinson’s legacy and its significance to the field of religion and sport.” — Rebecca T. Alpert author of Religion and Sports and Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball
“While growing up in the racially segregated city of Pasadena, going to a predominantly white university and participating in sports, confronting Jim Crow racism in the army during World War II, challenging baseball’s apartheid system while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and being on the front lines of the civil rights movement during and after his playing days, Robinson drew strength and hope from his faith. Gary Scott Smith tells this remarkable and little-known story in his book Strength for the Fight. Smith explores the intersection of sports, politics, and religion in Robinson’s amazing life. You don’t have to be a baseball fan, or be religious, to enjoy this well-written book.” — Peter Dreier coauthor of Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America
“Few sports figures have made a greater impact on American culture than Jackie Robinson. In this important biography, Gary Scott Smith examines the contours of Robinson’s Christian faith, showing how it shaped his life—inside and outside of baseball. Not only does Smith reveal how Robinson’s faith provided him the fortitude to be the first African American to play in the white major leagues, but he also shows how Robinson’s Christianity was at the center of a life devoted to fighting for racial justice in America. Rich in source material and wonderfully written, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in Jackie Robinson, baseball history, and American religion.” — Christopher H. Evans coeditor of The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture
Religion & Politics “Even-handed and fair, the power of Strength for the Fight comes from Smith’s extensive source material. . . . Strength for the Fight is essential reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of Robinson’s Christian faith or a new angle on an often-told American story. With wide-ranging source material, Smith’s book makes it clear that we should not overlook the complex and nuanced ways that the combination of religion and sport have shaped public life.”
The Englewood Review of Books “Smith’s account of Robinson helps us have a greater understanding of his life and its significance, deepening our appreciation for him as a person shaped by the Christian tradition. But it also helps us to understand our moment, the importance of family in faith formation, the role of the church and its ministers in influencing our moral imagination, and the place of sports as a vehicle not only for recreation and fun, but as a crucible for character.”
The American Spectator What makes Smith’s work so thoroughly excellent is its focus on Robinson’s faith. Smith, a historian of sports and religion . . . is one of the few historians who understands and relates the secret to Robinson’s success: faith.
Christianity Today “Gary Scott Smith offers a more intimate account of Robinson’s spiritual life than was previously known. Rooted in previous books on his subject, Smith’s book is both a work of synthesis and a triumph of original research that casts a distinct analytical eye on Robinson’s religious life. . . . While Strength for the Fight is a consistently interesting and informative read, its strongest sections are the ones focused on Robinson’s life after baseball.”
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