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April 14th, 2011
09:12 AM ET

How church helped sign Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers

By Jamie Crawford, CNN

Washington (CNN) - Sometimes, matters of faith have a quiet yet powerful way of influencing history.

Take, for example, the behind-the-scenes story that preceded the entry of the first African-American player to major league baseball more than six decades ago.

That player, of course, was the legendary Jackie Robinson, who shattered the big-league color barrier when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. The story of faith belongs to the baseball executive who signed Robinson, the equally legendary Branch Rickey, and to a New York minister who played a quiet role in a major decision.

And the telling of that story spans generations and families, from the minister’s wife, who wrote it down, to the couple’s granddaughter who uncovered it many years later among her late grandmother’s writings.

“I had no idea that I would find a story that linked my grandfather to a part of U.S. history,” the granddaughter, Donnali Fifield, told CNN. “But as soon as I read it, I knew it was historically significant.”

What Fifield read was an account by June Fifield of her husband, the Rev. Dr. L. Wendell Fifield, and his encounter with Rickey as history was about to be made.

Fifield, who was pastor of the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn in the 1940s, counted Rickey, then general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, as one of his parishioners.

A century earlier, that church had played a part in American history through its first pastor and anti-slavery activist, Henry Ward Beecher, and his connections to the fabled “underground railroad,” the secretive network that helped escaped slaves flee safely to northern states and to Canada.

Fifield’s historical footnote of faith was more passive. In a paper titled “Branch Rickey’s ‘Day of Decision’,” June Fifield wrote about a visit Rickey paid to her husband’s office at the church just before his decision to sign Robinson.

“Don’t let me interrupt, I can’t talk with you,” Rickey said as he walked into the minister’s office, according to the paper. “I just want to be here. Do you mind?”

The two men passed the time without words – the minister going about his work; Richey frenetically pacing the floor, stopping only occasionally to peer out the window on the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood that surrounded the church.

Amid ongoing silence, more pacing, more stopping, more pacing, more stopping from Rickey for some 45 minutes, according to the article.

Finally, Rickey didn’t just break the silence, he shattered it.

“I’ve got it,” Rickey yelled emphatically as he banged his fist on the desk.

“Got what, Branch?” Fifield asked. “Wendell,” Rickey said, “I’ve decided to sign Jackie Robinson!”

June Fifield wrote that as Rickey regained his composure he sank into a chair and told her husband, “This was a decision so complex, so far-reaching, fraught with so many pitfalls but filled with so much good, if it was right, that I just had to work it out in this room with you. I had to talk to God about it and be sure what he wanted me to do. I hope you don’t mind.”

The article continues that as Rickey straightened his bow tie and donned his worn hat, he offered, “Bless you, Wendell,” then left the room.

In her essay, June Fifield wrote that her husband kept the story of the encounter to himself for most of his life, but eventually came to realize that Jackie Robinson, and the rest of the world, should hear of it after Rickey died, and so he told it to his wife.

June Fifield wrote the essay in 1966, and it was eventually published in the Plymouth church bulletin, but otherwise seemingly forgotten as the years went on.

The decision and discipline to keep such a secret astonished many of those who knew Rev. Fifield, as well as those who have followed in his footsteps.

“As a baseball fan, I would have wanted to tell everybody,” the Rev. David Fisher, the current pastor of Plymouth Church, said of his predecessor to CNN in a recent interview conducted in the same office as the encounter between Fifield and Rickey.

“Not only that Branch Rickey was a member of my church, but that this monumental event happened in my presence, and for him (Fifield) to have kept it quiet his whole life is magnificent.”

While the story was unknown until now to Rickey’s namesake and grandson, Branch Rickey III, it fit with image he already had of his grandfather, who died in 1965.

“It certainly would not be a surprise in anybody that lived around my grandfather,” Rickey told CNN, “that he would have sought that kind of guidance for any kind of significant decision that he was pursuing.”

The younger Rickey, who followed his grandfather and father, Branch Rickey, Jr. into professional baseball, is president of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. In an interview at the ballpark of the Round Rock Express team near Austin, Texas, he said he could see a spiritual aspect to his grandfather’s historic decision, based on anecdotes relayed to him over the years.

When a well-known journalist of the era told the Dodgers general manager that he thought “all hell would break loose” the next day with Robinson due to take the field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger, Rickey disagreed. “My grandfather immediately responded to him, ‘I believe tomorrow all heaven will rejoice,’” the younger Rickey said.

Jackie Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53. His widow, Rachel – also unaware of Rickey’s encounter with his pastor before signing her husband – told CNN the story “reinforces my view of him (Rickey) and my experiences with him.”

“I believe he was very thoughtful about making this decision,” Rachel Robinson said in her New York office at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, adding, “He knew he was going to be pretty well isolated in making it, so that he needed all the strength he could summon up, to be able to take the step.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who spent many years researching the history of baseball – much of it focusing on Jackie Robinson’s historic role in the game – had never heard about Fifield’s quiet role in Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson. But Burns said he could see a strong sense of faith in Rickey that guided him to Fifield’s office before making a decision that went against the grain of American society of the time.

“It was the right thing to do,” Burns said in an interview with CNN in the sanctuary of the Plymouth church. Rickey “already understood that from his lifetime experience, but he sort of had to square it with God, I think.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • History • Leaders • Sports

soundoff (51 Responses)
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  7. Kaleigh

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    August 25, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  8. T-party

    It took religious idiots till 1947 to realize all men were created equal...oh thats right most religious texts support racism,slavery and war...

    April 14, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  9. GSA

    @BG – of course I was. Not only god's finest herb but smoking in plain view of all in this wonderful country of mine. All this oil money in Alberta is good to me and my family so I like to take time to relax and enjoy the beauty of Canada. Have a nice day with the good ol' boy down south.

    April 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  10. GSA

    @Reality and @Ryan – shhhhh. @BG does not know that so please keep quiet. It hurts him to think that his country was bested by the donut eating, snowboarding little brother up North eh! He only gets his info from Wikipedia.
    @Ryan – I skipped history in school, seems that Canadian history class as with the US and other countries is told from only one point of view. Not worht learning and nothing gained from it. Notice how most Americans think that US was "discovered", funny how the ppl here long before then couldn't discover it just live, eat and breathe on the land, lol. Also it gets old when learning about the history of a country and realizing that most of the ppl given credit are old, white racist guys.

    April 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • BG

      @ GSA

      "I skipped history in school..."

      Noooo ?! I would have never known unless you said something....

      April 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • BG

      @ GSA

      What was history, the course after lunch? You were, where? Enjoying, as you put it, "God's fine herb."

      April 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Ed

    I thinks its sad that when the tell a story about some one in a religion gas done something good people say so what it means nothing religion sucks why doesn't God or religion do something good stop trying to convince us to be religious. When the story is about someone in a religion has done something bad it see religions are bad religious people are bad God is bad or fake. Several people have fairly commented if I credit prayer with helping when I get what I want i should discredit it when it fails. THe same is true of religion when it some one in a religious group does somthing good say so and don't bash. The atheist have no problem pointing bashing when someone who is religious does something bad. Also you will notice I said someone not the religion as a whole this is because religion didn't do it good or bad a person or group of people did it good or bad. They may have let their faith influence them but they did it. Give creidt where credit is do give blame where blame is do.

    April 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Natwar

      Yay! I'm so glad you liked them. It's always nice to hear that a gift has been acerepiatpd. >;-)I'll have to read them myself now. I seem to recall that the library here has them. I'll have to check again. You know me always looking for something new to read.

      July 30, 2012 at 4:20 am |
  12. Kyle Freeman

    No one seems to have noticed the important part of this story. It isn't that Christianity or religion played a part in the Jackie Robinson decision. It's that it occurred in the church established by Henry Ward Beecher, the most important abolitionist during the two decades before the Civil War, whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling novel of the 19th century, whose anti-slavery message inspired millions to feel an emotional zeal about abolishing a moral evil. You couldn't have picked a more iconic place than this church to have the most important decision in the 20th century affecting the abolition of unstated but deep-seated prejudices toward blacks. Thus the fateful moment when Branch Rickey exclaimed, "I've got it!" issued from a place steeped in the unshakable belief that fighting for racial justice was a divine commandment.

    April 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • JohnR

      Thanks for actually adding something interesting to the discussion.

      Ok, let's get back to Canada bashing ...

      April 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  13. GSA

    @BG – are you still mad that the one war between the US and Canada ended in the White House burning.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Reality

      Hmmm, the War of 1812, the U.S.-British conflict arising from U.S. grievances over oppressive British maritime practices in the Napoleonic Wars. i.e. it was not a Canadian-US conflict although some Canadians still think the Queen has the divine right to Canada.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      Reality's right on this one – The War of 1812 was between England and America, not Canada and America. Somebody needs to study up on their Canadian history. Also, it didn't end with the Whitehouse burning – it ended with (actually, shortly before, but nobody got the memo in time due to slow communication) the English being routed in New Orleans by General Jackson.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Canuckian

      BG is busy, out cleaning the goose poop off his lawn now. The first sortie was just flown.

      April 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • BG

      @ GSA

      Must have been the wrong white house. Stupid Canadians... couldn't read a map 200 yeeers ahgo and still can't.

      @ Canuckian (is that an actual 'name' for you people? Do you call yourselves that? Would you get mad if – I – called you that?)

      There was once EH, the great god of Canada.
      EH demanded that the people of Canada pick up
      all the goose droppings in the land.

      When they refused, EH cursed them to say his
      name at the end of every sentence.
      And thus the Canadian accent was born, eh?

      April 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Canuckian

      At least we had a real god eh. More than can be said for yours. Eh.

      April 14, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  14. Toby

    I like these pieces because, if nothing else, they help to demonstrate how people can use ideas to either advance a cause or retard progress. Certainly, monotheism (Christianity in particular) has done many good things and helped many people. However, Christianity of several denominations (because they do not all agree on every point in the Bible) has also blocked embryonic stem cell research funding, the Civil Rights Act, and used the biblical scriptures to justify the African slave trade in the US colonies just for starters. So, do we need these unproven ideas to live good and moral lives? Or is it easier to believe that being decent, compassionate, generous, and caring to our fellow creatures benefits all of us because it enhances the happiness of everyone? We know there are tens of millions of good and moral people who live each day without any belief in any religion or deity-therefore the likelihood that our morality comes from us and not from the skies is far more probable. Peace.

    April 14, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Roger

      And just where do those ideas of morality come from?

      April 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Kevin Harrison

      They don't come from religion, Roger. Study after study has proven that religious people have higher rates of major crime, are more likely to support war, torture and capital punishment, and are more likely to divorce. In prison populations, the percentage of religious people are higher than in the outside world, while for atheists it is much much smaller. Research has repeatedly proved that religion actually inhibits morality.

      I find it absurd that people cannot see perfectly good reasons to be decent and cooperate in the absence of religion. Game theory proves that cooperation most often is the more successful long-term strategy, that theft is only a one time gain which carries revenge as a risk.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • It's Science

      Adult stem cell research has proven to be more beneficial than embryonic, without the unnecessary termination of a young life.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Jason

      @Kevin Harrison

      Based on principle, I call BS. Now, if you can provide sound docu.mentation for your claims I would reconsider.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Becky

      "therefore the likelihood that our morality comes from us and not from the skies is far more probable."

      I would like to know at what point in the evolutionary process we became moral beings. The animal kingdom shows no moral code, as evidenced by Darwin's survival of the fittest. We, as humans don't have the luxury of eliminating the 'weak.' Does anybody know when these morals developed?

      April 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ed

      @Toby. It is in my opinon not necessary to beleive in God to be a good person. I was not raised particularlly relegious and my behavior did not radically changed when I joined the church. There are too many examples of people from all beliefs or lack ther of behaving badly. So Toby agree with fully when you state religion is not necessary for a person to be a good and moral person. Believing in God can give some people strength in tough times but is is more an internal thing then external which is one reason its so hard to explain.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Kevin Harrison

      Well, Jason, I will put the studies below for you, but honestly, if you googled what you had trouble with, you would easily find it. I grow weary of providing evidence to people who are too lazy to hit a couple keystrokes, and who don't believe scientific evidence that they do see. Please do your own research next time.

      Torture: http://pewforum.or g/Politics-and-Elections/The-Religious-Dimensions-of-the-Torture-Debate.aspx (take out the space between the r anf the g)

      Divorce: http://www.adherents.com/largecom/baptist_divorce.html

      Support of war: http://www.allacademic.com/one/www/www/index.php?cmd=Download+Docu ment&key=unpublished_manuscript&file_index=2&pop_up=true&no_click_key=true&attachment_style=attachment&PHPSESSID=02889d20edd0a607aa308a79d6c00685 (take out the space between docu and ment)

      Higher crime: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-9125.1995.tb01176.x/abstract

      Go explore game theory on your own to see why cooperation is usually the most beneficial long-term strategy. Google "ra-pe in Utah" and "Po-rn consumption in Utah" to see how well a family-oriented religion keeps crime at bay (check out their suicide rates for young people and anti-depressant use as well).

      So your "BS" call is BS. Feel free to google the relationship between religiousity and intelligence for more bad news – for you, not atheists.

      You Christians sure are lazy. Do your own research – but then again, you find that verifiable science stuff that you hate so much.

      April 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Jason

      @Kevin Harrison

      I can find any number of supporting either side of the equation. It's called slanted journalism.

      Divorce rate identical:

      http://www.christianpost.com/news/study-christian-divorce-rate-identical-to-national-average-31815/

      On war:

      http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/578

      On crime, and a plethora of other topics you might consider:

      http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/chrisnot.htm

      Just because you read some liberal articles disguised in the editor's viewpoints doesn't make them fact. I can search just as easily as you can. I wanted to see what sources you were using. In doing that, I have provided a comprehensive rebu.ttal against your sources.

      Note* I can do the same thing for any science 'theory' you throw at me.

      April 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jason

      And...

      New study debunks claims linking Relgious Faith and Intelligence
      This study of 711 students ages 15 to 16 from schools throughout England found "no evidence of a relationship, either positive or negative, between intelligence and religiosity," found Dr. Leslie Francis of the University of Wales Lampeter. For decades psychologists claimed religious beliefs meant lower intelligence, Dr. Francis noted. "The major conclusion to emerge from these data concerns the absense of a significant religionship between intelligence and att.itude toward Christainity. This is significant with the findings by Fracis (1979.,1986) taken together these studies clearly challenge the research consesus formulated in the late '50s...it is now consistantly found to be the case that intelligence and religosity are uncorreleted..." Many experts consider this measure to be among the purest measures of intelligence. These students also filled out a scale of 24 questions used in 100 other studies as a reliable measure regarding their feelings about religious beliefs such as God, the Bible, Jesus, prayer, and church. The study also took into account the student¼s social class.When intelligence and religious att.itudes were compared, Dr. Francis found no links: "These statistics confirm there is no significant relationship between intelligence and att.itude toward Christianity."

      April 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Kevin Harrison

      Jason, good job! I have put those statistics and sources out so many times, and you are the first religious person to attempt to deal with the matter providing actual sources to back up your opinion. Good for you! Usually I get knee-jerk gibberish and wild inventions in response. I bet we would have an interesting conversation. I don't have time to go into details at the moment, as our conversation would have to be extensive, but I would note that "refutation" is to prove wrong by evidence or argumentation, and that has not happened yet. You only provided contrary sources and no argument, so you can't declare victory when we only have the basis for a discussion so far. But again, at least you appear ready to have an intellegent conversation.

      I cannot comment in detail as I have to go do a two day shift, so perhaps on a future thread we can follow through. I will say that I looked over your sources, and a couple are not very solid and unbiased. You must not have read mine at all, because you quoted from the exact same study (The Barna Group on divorce), but from a different year. Lots of implications, but most of the differences must be sampling error. The changes are too dramatic. If you average them out, the atheists/non-religious are still the lower rate.

      As to your post on faith and intelligence, I can cite 20 or more studies to your one, and if you read carefully, the study cherry-picked the Christian students, skewing the results.

      I just don't have time to go further, but again, I thank you for making a serious effort to address the matter intelligently and with supporting evidence. That is seriously a first. Let's pick this up again, okay? Feel free to challenge me when you see me post.

      April 14, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • civiloutside

      Actually, Becky, many primates display rudiments of what we'd call "moral behavior." And Darwin's survival of the fittest is a concept that applies on a species level, not necessarily the individual level. "The fittest," defines a successful survival strategy for a species, not individual strength and power. For social species (such as humans), supporting sick or weak members of the species can lead to more members surviving and reproducing. Therefore it's a successful survival strategy, and fully in keeping with the "survival of the fittest" concept.

      April 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  15. Mark

    STOP with the damn religious puff pieces! Get OVER it already! We get it! you like throwing religion in to the news because you're hoping to marginalize christianity and turn it into nothing more then a meditational hobby with no real God to focus on.
    I liked it better when you just reported on the events of the day and left the indoctrination to FOX!
    I don't care about what some hillbilly pastor with 12 followers is burning today, or how 5 idiots are praying for lower gas prices!

    April 14, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • JohnR

      I come to the same conclusion from the opposite side. These pieces make an insti-tution with a shady history of opposing the expansion of civil and human rights and many critical junctures look benign. Yes, there were Christians at the forefront of the expansion of civil rights in this country, but there were many opposed as well. Let's here both sides of this story.

      April 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  16. sandra mancini

    hello jackie robinson got his first break in MONTREAL
    AS IN CANADA
    cheers jackie!

    April 14, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • BG

      @ sandra

      Pssst... He's dead.

      April 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  17. Nonimus

    Thanks Jacques and Lisa.
    I was not aware of that aspect of the story.

    April 14, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  18. BG

    @ Lisa

    Better get on the treadmill...

    http://www.montrealgazette.com/health/Canadian+women+getting+faster/4222257/story.html

    April 14, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Arthur Pendragon

      So BG, where in the scriptures does it say "Thou shalt be an obnoxious troll?"

      April 14, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • The Big Stick

      You should talk:
      http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/12/60II/main628877.shtml

      April 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Canuckian

      BG, our geese have the poop on you now.

      April 14, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • BG

      @ Canuckian

      Wha? Yu don wan the head?

      No Probwem.

      April 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  19. Lisa

    Agreed Jacques. It's worth mentioning and here's the news link: http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20110228/jackie-robinson-montreal-baseball-110228/

    April 14, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  20. jacques brunelle

    you seem to forget that jackie robinson started his pro career in white baseball with the dodgers's no. 1 farm team the Montreal Royals of the AAA international league before joining the brooklyn Dodgers. From his arrival in Montreal, he was accepted by the fans in Montreal but it was another ball game in the american cities in the usa.Please remember.

    April 14, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • BG

      Sanctimonious Canadian patoots. You're so much better than us bigoted Americans – Nah.

      http://www.macleans.ca/canada/features/article.jsp?content=20071022_110249_110249&page=1

      Guess what else... you're getting fat. (not as fat as us, but it's good to have aspirations. You'll get there.)

      April 14, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Canuckian

      BG, we send our Canadian Air Force stealth geese to poop prodigiously on your lawn.

      April 14, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • BG

      @ Canukian

      Think the "Chinese Restaurant scene" at the end of the movie A Christmas Story.

      Fa WaWaWa Wa, Wa Wa Wa Wa.

      April 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Canuckian

      Christmas is all stories eh.

      April 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.