Jackie Robinson has been one of my favorite athletes and a hero of mine since middle school, when I wrote my first-ever research paper on him. Few athletes who are called “hero” actually deserve the title because most of them are given it for nothing more than athletic prowess. Robinson was a supreme athlete, but his heroism was like few others in American history. In fact, he is one of the greatest Americans ever to have lived.
I recently had the chance to see 42, the feature film on Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier, and I enjoyed it. But as the movie drew to a close, something seemed amiss. Scene after scene was stolen by Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager who made the decision to sign and play Robinson. And it wasn’t just because Harrison Ford played Rickey. His character stole the show because he had all the lines; he was a veritable quote machine.
What made Jackie Robinson so great was precisely what made it so hard to capture his whole person on screen: his silence, stolidity, strength, and fortitude. He wasn’t a vocal activist in his playing days; he simply stood tall in the face of half a nation’s hatred and beat them at their own favorite game. Somehow Robinson managed this while bearing the hopes and expectations of millions of African-Americans on his shoulders. Actions speak louder than words, and Robinson was living proof of that. He changed America without saying a notable word.
A leader, as we often think of one now, is loquacious and quotable. Robinson may have been the least quotable leader in our country’s history. He was unique to the point of inimitable. He did not recruit a following; he simply played baseball and did so better than the vast majority of his peers. He did not give speeches or write polemics, he simply lived in the vicious public eye with dignity and nary a misstep. To say he led by example sells him short of short.
God created Jackie Robinson for a specific purpose. He was uniquely gifted to do something and was placed in history at the perfect time to do it. Few men have so visibly displayed the sacrificial strength of Jesus, the influence of humility, and the transformative power of steady right action over time. Robinson was a quintessential image-bearer of God. Privately, Robinson was a fiery man and unafraid to speak his mind, but that only puts his accomplishments in starker reality. He was a hero’s hero and a leader of men. Jackie Robinson did not have too little character for the silver screen. He had too much.