Fifty years ago this October, Jackie Robinson’s final autobiography, I Never Had It Made, was published, just one week after Robinson died.
It’s a book that I assigned as a history professor when teaching a post-1877 U.S. history class, because it’s fundamentally a book about America—about politics, race, and sports, about a changing post-World War II cultural and political landscape, about one man’s experience navigating and even shaping those changes.
In short, it’s a book that helps students think about the narratives we tell about America.
Robinson symbolizes one particular understanding of America that still holds strong today. In popular myth, it’s a story rooted in his 1947 rookie season, when Robinson captured the nation’s attention by desegregating Major League Baseball. Robinson, in this story, is the heroic individual who leads America into its more inclusive future through sheer force of will, who inspires America to become the best version of itself.
In this telling there is no need for marches, protests, or government intervention. Just a white man—Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson to the Dodgers—willing to give a Black man a chance, and that Black man seizing the opportunity. By knocking base hits while turning the other cheek, Robinson gradually wins over white teammates and fans who leave the baseball field emboldened to create a more inclusive society.
Turn to the preface of I Never Had It Made, however, and that popular mythology is turned on its head with Robinson’s reflections on the scene just before the 1947 World Series.
“The air was sparking. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind,” Robinson writes. Yet, instead of basking in the moment or reflecting with pride on the new America that he helped to usher in, the Jackie Robinson of 1972 saw his story in a different light. His success on the integrated playing field had not fulfilled its social promise. It had not trickled down into the rest of society.
“Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor,” Robinson continued. “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Over the past decade there has been a surge of interest in Robinson’s life. The release of the film 42 in 2013, followed by a Ken Burns documentary on Robinson in 2016, and the new era of Black athlete activism—defined by the image of a Black athlete who could not stand and sing the anthem—have all drawn journalists and historians deeper into Robinson’s story. A proliferation of new books and articles seeking to explain Robinson’s significance for today has resulted, often casting Robinson as a prototype for the new generation of athlete activists.
At the same time, conservative Christians have sought to claim Robinson’s story. Less interested in Robinson the activist, they see Robinson the bridge-builder, the Black man whose faith inspired him to turn the other cheek, to work with fellow Christian Branch Rickey to cross racial divides. They also see a liberal bias hiding the true motivation behind the integration of Major League Baseball: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Books by conservative commentators like Eric Metaxas and Ed Henry have claimed to tell “the rest of the Jackie Robinson story” with Christianity as its center.
These different interpretations of Jackie Robinson’s legacy reflect the complexity of the man himself. Anyone who has closely studied his life quickly realizes that Robinson is not easy to pin down, that he tends to defy broad generalizations. At the same time, the disconnect between Jackie Robinson the Christian and Jackie Robinson the activist only makes sense if we assume that legitimate Christian expression is limited to the boundaries set by conservative white evangelicals. Scholars who have looked closely at Robinson’s faith have found the opposite to be true.
The first serious book-length treatment of Robinson’s religion, Michael Long and Chris Lamb’s 2017 Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, revealed that Robinson was heavily shaped by a progressive Christianity, one rooted in both Black church traditions and mainline Protestantism. Randal Maurice Jelks extended this analysis with an important essay on Robinson’s Methodist roots in 42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, published in 2021. And now Gary Scott Smith, emeritus professor of history at Grove City College, has added to the conversation with a new religious biography of Robinson, Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson.
Coming 50 years after Robinson’s death, Smith’s book offers a timely opportunity to reflect anew on a towering figure in the American story, to look back on moments we thought we knew and to reconsider their meaning and significance for America today.
Strength for the Fight is built on two key ideas. First: Robinson was a remarkable man who achieved remarkable success on and off the field. “Arguably, Robinson did more to benefit American society than any other baseball player and perhaps any other professional sports figure,” Smith writes.
Second: Robinson’s faith was a central part of his story, a “deep and meaningful and powerful force in his life.” “Inspired by his Christian faith,” Smith concludes, “Robinson moved our society forward, and his life continues to inspire progress toward racial equity.”
With those core themes in mind, Smith traces Robinson’s life and achievements. He explores Robinson’s religious influences, looks for statements or writings in which Robinson discusses Christianity, and also examines Robinson’s connections and collaboration with religious leaders and institutions.
Smith concludes that Robinson’s faith is “best understood in the context of black churches, Methodism, and the Social Gospel movement.” No evangelical, Robinson attended a Black Methodist church while growing up in Pasadena, followed by a predominantly Black Congregational church during his baseball career, and then a predominantly white Congregational church near his house after he moved into a white neighborhood in Connecticut. His faith, Smith concludes, “focused more on the Bible’s teaching on social justice than on personal spirituality.”
To readers familiar with Robinson’s story, Smith’s narrative does not come with many surprises. He mostly plays the hits, going chronologically through the major events in Robinson’s life, but with religious accent notes.
We learn of Robinson’s mother, Mallie, a committed Methodist who instilled in him a sense of God-given pride in his racial identity and skin color. We read about Karl Downs, the dynamic Methodist minister in Pasadena who mentored Robinson before passing away suddenly in 1948 (although Smith does not mention this, Downs played a crucial role in the publication of Howard Thurman’s classic book Jesus and the Disinherited—a central text in the civil rights movement). And we encounter Branch Rickey, whose own Christian faith provided a connection point with Robinson, bringing the two men together for the “noble experiment” of integrating Major League Baseball.
We also get a sense of the way faith inspired and comforted Robinson amid the pressures of baseball. Although Smith ultimately concludes that Robinson did not focus on a personal spirituality, his description of Robinson’s religious life in the big leagues suggests otherwise. Robinson spoke frequently of praying and taking solace in the Bible, and even suggested in 1949 that baseball teams should build chapels for the players’ use—an idea that came more than a decade before pre-game chapel services started in Major League Baseball.
Off the field, Smith covers Robinson’s complex engagement in politics and activism. Fiercely independent in his thinking, Robinson frequently found himself in disagreement with leading Black voices. In 1949, at the height of the Red Scare, Robinson testified before a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing, distancing himself from comments made by Paul Robeson, a singer, actor, and activist who supposedly spoke favorably about the Soviet Union. (Robinson also criticized racism in his statement, although that received less attention from the press.)
In 1960, Robinson campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon. At the time Black support for Republican candidates was much higher than today, with close to a third voting for the GOP. Yet Robinson’s endorsement still put him at odds with the majority of Black voters. In the early 1960s, too, Robinson and Malcolm X engaged in heated debate, with Robinson rejecting the separatism preached by the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X criticizing Robinson for his dependence on white authority figures.
At the same time, Robinson remained firmly committed to racial justice activism and federal government intervention for civil rights. In the 1960s, he served on several mainline Protestant committees associated with the National Council of Churches, and he worked closely with Black church civil rights leaders, including Baptist ministers Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson. He frequently criticized white Christians who opposed or downplayed the civil rights movement, and he looked to collaborate with church groups and leaders who made civil rights a priority.
Robinson’s concern for civil rights, Smith shows, ultimately led him away from his earlier support for the Republican Party. After endorsing Nixon in 1960, Robinson spent the next eight years fighting for a more racially inclusive Republican Party, supporting the more liberal Nelson Rockefeller wing of the GOP while opposing the conservative movement represented by leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Robinson warned in 1964 that a Goldwater nomination would turn the Republican Party into “completely the white man’s party.” Three years later, he believed that a nomination of Richard Nixon “would be telling the black man it cares nothing about him or his concerns.” In a 1968 speech before a Disciples of Christ convention—a speech in which Robinson urged “dedicated Christians” to take action in the battle for racial justice—he criticized Nixon for “bowing low to white backlash.”
For white evangelicals today wondering how Christians could support the Democratic Party, Robinson’s experience in the 1960s provides an important data point. Robinson had a conservative orientation on several issues, including his belief in capitalism. Yet when it came to combatting racism, he saw the Republican Party moving away from its roots as the party of Abraham Lincoln and instead prioritizing the concerns of white segregationists and cultivating white resentment as an electoral strategy.
When Robinson looked for hope, he found it not in a Silent Majority yearning for an America of the past, but instead in the social vision of Black church leaders like Jesse Jackson. In 1971 Robinson served as the first vice president of Jackson’s Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and in 1972 he endorsed Jackson in his autobiography. “I think he offers the most viable leadership for blacks and oppressed minorities in America,” Robinson wrote, “and also for the salvation of our national decency.”
Robinson did not live to see Jackson launch his historic Rainbow Coalition campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s. Even so, Robinson’s support for Jackson exemplified the historical trends that would lead the majority of Black Christians to choose the Democratic Party as the best representation of their constellation of moral priorities.
Smith refrains from making any commentary on the contemporary political implications of Robinson’s shifting allegiances, but he does track Robinson’s actions and statements in a workman-like way. Even-handed and fair, the power of Strength for the Fight comes from Smith’s extensive source material. He recognizes tensions and different interpretations, quoting from primary sources and a wide variety of journalists and scholars.
While Smith provides a great deal of breadth, the depth of his analysis is sometimes lacking. Smith presents a limited contextual understanding of sport history scholarship in particular, and he leans on other writer’s words often, quoting their assessments rather than offering his own interpretation. This is perhaps a crutch born out of necessity: In the past two years, Smith has also published religious biographies of Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, and before that, he made his biggest splash in historical circles with his work on the role of religion in the lives and policies of American presidents. In Smith’s broader body of work, Robinson is simply the next in the line of great men to receive the religious biography treatment.
Still, despite its limitations, 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. Rather than presenting competing versions of Robinson—one grounded in 1947 and one in 1972—Strength for the Fight shows that Robinson’s Christian faith was not at odds with his social justice activism, but instead was its source.
Paul Emory Putz is assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Seminary.