By TLB Contributing Author: James N. Miller
In 1969, my college roommate penned these words:
“The lightning flashed, the thunder roared, and all the earth was shaken. The little pig picked up its tail and ran to save the bacon.” —Gary Don Boyd
It was just a silly rhyme back then. But now, 48 years later, it’s the reality we live with. The world is blowing up. We are a people at war with ourselves, Americans fighting Americans, violence in our streets, character assassination on social media. And like the gales of November that once sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, the storms of hatred and violence are squalling across this land, destroying our way of life. Can anyone save the bacon?
The midpoint of baseball season is here, and as I look back a few years, I’m reminded of two men who were thrown together in a gut-wrenching baseball drama while the whole world looked on. But the stakes were much larger than just strikes and balls.
In the 1930’s Branch Rickey was a brash baseball executive with an eye for the future and a nose for the money. But Rickey had another side. Associates claimed he spent many hours reading the Bible, deeply moved by principles of fairness and equality. He took a second look at his own nation, a country which stood for hope and freedom for all men, and didn’t like what he saw.
Black Americans were expected to play ball in their own league known as the “Negro League.” African-Americans were viewed by most whites as second-class citizens and were not allowed to play on Major League teams. Branch Rickey, a Caucasian and one of the most influential executives in the game, decided to take on racism in America with his bare hands. He would risk his life and financial future by hiring a black player for his ball club, hoping to pave the way for more.
By 1943, Branch Rickey was president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Described as a flamboyant, cigar-smoking, Bible-quoting 63-year-old Midwesterner whose ordinary speech often resembled a sermon* he set out on his search for the right athlete. He scouted the Negro Leagues, colleges, and backstreets. By 1945 he had zeroed in on his man—a 26-year-old ball player named Jackie Robinson.
Rickey liked Robinson for many reasons, not the least of which was Jackie’s set of extraordinary athletic skills. He was uncommonly competitive, did not drink, and was highly self-disciplined. The one potential drawback was that Jackie had a quick, fiery temper.
Robinson was stunned when Branch Rickey, the maverick executive, approached him about joining the Dodgers’ organization. But when the gifted young athlete realized what was being asked of him, he accepted the biggest challenge of his life—the challenge to learn about meekness, humility, and turning the other cheek. When Rickey handed him a copy of the Life of Jesus, the game was on.
One of their subsequent meetings reportedly lasted three hours, with Rickey bearing down on the young black man, demonstrating the abuse he would see—the language, racial slurs, threats. He screamed in Jackie’s face like an angry bigot.
“His acting was so convincing that I found myself chain-gripping my fingers behind my back,” Robinson wrote later.
After swallowing his emotion, Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a player who’s afraid to fight back?”
“I want a player with guts enough not to fight back!” was Rickey’s stridulant response.
When Jackie Robinson finally joined the Dodgers, his limits were tested more than he could’ve imagined; racial epithets, death threats, pitchers throwing at his head, base runners spiking him with their cleats. Even Brooklyn fans and some teammates openly protested his presence. The first 37 games were brutal, but, like Jesus, Jackie never broke.
During one game, Pee Wee Reese, Brooklyn’s popular shortstop and team captain, a southerner, hearing the abuse once again, finally had enough. Robinson described the incident this way:
“Pee Wee . . . came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn’t say a word, but he looked at the chaps yelling at me and just stared.”
Soon, things began to change. The insults turned to cheers as Jackie’s antics on the field made a contender of the Dodgers who had been perennial losers. Before Jackie Robinson came along, a stolen base was a rarity. With Jackie, it was standard procedure. His slashing running style was imitated by other players. He changed the way the game was played.
By midseason Jackie Robinson was the most popular man in Brooklyn. At season’s end, he was given Rookie of the Year honors by the league. Jackie proved the hard way that meekness is a powerful force. He showed us all what a hero is.
Rickey and Robinson; two great Americans, two souls who squared off against the ignorant monster of hatred, and forced it to back down. They showed us how to save the bacon. Sometimes it pays to look back and remember.
*The World and I, March, 2003
James N. Miller is the Creator of The Cody Musket Story
More articles by James:
TLBTV Show with James:
Click on the image below to visit TLB Project on twitter …