A Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 and Mark 4:30-32.
The late Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Major League Baseball manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 30s and 40s, allegedly once said: “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” All joking aside, there is something spiritual and religious about the game of baseball.
For example, as one famous baseball movie notes, “there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches on a baseball.” The game itself is not fast paced like other sports. It is filled with long moments of silence, contemplation, and consternation—punctuated at times by loud shouts of praise and joy. Baseball is played in a serene park where the pitcher, poised atop the mound directs the flow of the game for the congregation in the stands. The elements of nature abound, firing up the senses of everyone gathered. The smell of the grass and dirt. The cracking sound of wooden bats. The buzzing of gnat flittering around your cap. The bird fluttering in the rafters of the stadium. The blue skies and soft breeze that delights the eyes and face.
Baseball, like church, tethers us to everyday life with its hits and strikeouts; homeruns and errors; sacrifice bunts and slides at home plate; magic and miracles. Baseball is holy and sacred, inspiring us to believe that at any moment the impossible can become possible. Why else would we, as a society, hold up with reverence those sacred stories like Field of Dreams, The Natural, The Sandlot, A League of their Own and 42.
Former New York University President John Sexton shares this tidbit in his book Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game:
“The similarities between baseball and religion abound. The ballpark as cathedral; saints and sinners; the curses and blessings. But then what I’m arguing is beyond that surface level, there’s a fundamental similarity between baseball and religion which goes to the capacity of baseball to cause human beings, in a context they don’t think of as religious, to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence.”
Since we are in the middle of baseball season, it seems only apt to kick-off this year’s Summer Saints Sermon Series with an exploration of two legendary players who broke the plane of ordinary existence and revolutionized the modern game as we know it: Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Nearly a half century after their deaths in 1972, Robinson and Clemente continue to influence players and fans—due not only to their extraordinary existence on the field but also because of their faith and character, which allowed them break down racial barriers and change the world for the better—one hit and catch at a time.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia. He excelled in multiple sports in high school and college, and afterwards was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a segregated calvary unit. Toward the end of his service in 1944, he was a coach for Army athletics at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky. While there, Robinson met a former player of the Negro American League who encouraged him to try out for the Kansas City Monarchs.
Jackie Robinson’s stellar play caught the attention of Branch Rickey, the president of The Brooklyn Dodgers who wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. A devout Methodist, Branch Rickey chose Robinson, who was a Methodist like himself, because he wanted someone who had strong faith and moral fiber that they could withstand the racist abuse that the first black man in the majors would receive.
In a famous exchange between the two men, Branch flailed around and acted out various racist scenarios to test Robinson’s reaction, particularly considering the ball player had previous heated arguments with law enforcement over racists incidents. Initially, Robinson was aghast, questioning: “Are you looking for someone who is afraid to fight back?” to which Branch replied: “I’m looking for someone with guts enough not to fight back.” Upon obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek,” Branch signed him to a contract. On April 15, 1947, second-basemen, Jackie Robinson, wearing the No. 42 on his uniform, made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623.
Reflecting years later about his first meeting with Branch Rickey, Robinson remarked: “Could I turn the other cheek? Could I take the insults and humiliation without fighting back? I knew what he meant, and it was frightening.”
Robinson faced racist vitriol from fans, opposing players and managers and at first from his own ball club. Robinson never verbally responded with equal measure or got into a physical altercation, even when he was physically targeted by the other team. During a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, a player named Enos Slaughter purposely thrashed Robinson with his cleats, giving him a 7-inch gash in his leg.
In another game against the Philadelphia Phillies, manager Ben Chapman repeatedly called Robinson a racial epithet and told him to “go back to the cotton fields.” Robinson’s endurance of Chapman’s nastiness—powerfully portrayed in the film 42—stirred his Dodger teammates to come to his defense. According to Branch Rickey, “When (Chapman) poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified thirty men.”
In March 1974, a month before he would wreck Babe Ruth’s record of career home runs, the late Hank Aaron, who also endured his share of racism, wrote an article for the Christian devotional magazine Guideposts in which he shared why Jackie Robinson was his inspiration:
“What fascinated me so much was that Jackie was an emotional, explosive kind of ballplayer. Yet during that crucial first year in the big leagues, he didn’t lose his temper despite a steady barrage of insults from fans and other players. …How did he keep control? I learned later that he prayed a lot for help. And he also had a sense of destiny about what he was doing so much that he felt God’s presence with him. He learned to put aside his pride and quick temper for the bigger thing that he was doing.”
By the time Jackie Robinson retired from baseball in 1956 at the age of 38, he had been a six-time MLB All-Star, a National League MVP, batting champion and two-time stolen base leader and a World Series Champion. Robinson’s play and integrity busted open the door for every person of color who came after him.
Less than a decade after Robinson ended segregation in baseball, Roberto Clemente, a 21-year-old from the barrio of San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico, debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates, becoming the first Caribbean and Latino-American to ever play in the major leagues. Through the bulk of his 18 seasons as a Pirate, Clemente, a right fielder, dominated the sport. He was a 15-time All-Star, a National League MVP, four-time batting champion, a 12-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time World Series Champion. As a teammate once noted, “His body was a baseball machine.”
The son of a sugar cane worker and the youngest of seven, Clemente practiced baseball in the cane fields with tomato cans and balls made of string or rags. He excelled at the sport and shortly after high school he was signed to the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers which he played with for a year before being scooped up by the Pirates.
Clemente, who served for seven years in the US Marine Corps Reserves, often faced discrimination both for the color of his skin and his nationality and culture. He was often mocked in the press for having “broken” English and called a “Puerto Rican hot dog.” Sports reporters and baseball card companies attempted to refer to him as Bob Clemente so that his name would be more palatable to the large white fan-base.
Raised in a Catholic home, Clemente, like Jackie Robinson, clung tightly to his faith amid the turmoil. And he passionately spoke up for himself and others who experienced racism. One biography noted that:
“In every city his team visited during (the time) he played for the Pirates, Clemente spoke out: ‘I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So, I am going to be treated like a human being.’ In the hotels in towns he visited, Roberto would…meet children in hospitals. In the off-seasons, he went to Latin America, raising funds to help buy food, medicine, and sports equipment for children in poor neighborhoods, such as the one he had come from.”
Roberto Clemente once said, “If you have a chance to help others and fail to do so, you’re wasting your time on this earth.” He lived and breathed that philosophy till the day of his sudden and unexpected death at the age of 38. For many years, Clemente—inspired by the biblical story of the magi—delivered gifts to children on the Feast of Epiphany which is held in some countries on New Year’s Day.
On December 23, 1972, a huge earthquake devastated Managua the capital city of Nicaragua, prompting Clemente to send aid. After learning that three flights of clothing and food supplies were intercepted by corrupt government officials, Clemente decided to personally take a shipment to ensure the items would be delivered to the victims. In the evening hours of December 31, Roberto Clemente’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico due to engine failure and other logistic mishaps. His body was never recovered. A year later, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Caribbean and Latino-American player to be enshrined.
Jackie Robinson, the first African American to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 53, more than two months before Clemente’s untimely death. In his autobiography, published four days after he died, Robinson wrote: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson stayed true to his words, especially in the post-baseball years as he became more involved in the Civil Rights movement of the late 50s and 60s and delivered speeches and sermons across the nation. He didn’t hold back his views on racism and the church’s responsibility.
While speaking to the Fourth General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Denver in July 1963, Jackie Robinson said:
“It is the ministers, the church, the people of America, who can, almost overnight, cure the ills of our system which make so many of us commit the sin of acknowledging the Fatherhood of God on Sunday and rejecting the brotherhood of man on Monday.”
A few years later, at the Texas Association of Christian Churches in Austin, Robinson told the crowd:
“We must have a society of conscience, not consensus…For when we as Christians, or heretics, fail to speak the truth, fail to live the truth—when we lie by the words we utter and deceive by the phrases we fail to speak—we pave the way for division, hatred and strife.”
Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto, with their words and actions, epitomized the message of today’s scripture readings from Paul’s letter to Christians in Corinth and Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in Mark’s gospel. Both men were compelled by God’s love in Christ to keep on going despite their struggles, and to make a difference in the lives of the mistreated and downtrodden. They understood their purpose in life, that they were a new creation in Christ where everything old was fading into something new. Again, to quote author John Sexton from earlier, Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto knew they were created by God to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence.
By their endeavors both on and off the field, Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto did the work of God’s kingdom.
Jesus says kingdom building is akin to the small mustard seed that grows into an overgrown bush with large branches, providing nests for the birds. Mustard seed bushes, like the infamous kudzu of the South, vigorously and unassumingly overtakes gardens, roads, forests, mountain sides and buildings. Jesus described the coming of the kingdom as a wily contagious plant, a piece of God’s creation that produces something new and quickly covers up the old roads that humans have paved with hostility and turmoil.
In their short lives on this earth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente didn’t waste a moment to make a positive impact. They helped change broken systems and care for people in need, spreading mustard seeds of justice and love across the country and world.
Though they are no longer with us, their legacy remains for us to carry onward, knowing that God will be with us in every step, every hit, every strikeout, every failure, and every success.
Now, it is our time to step up to the plate. Amen.
 I Never Had it Made by Jackie Robinson, Harper Collins Publishing, 1972
 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2017
 Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felilpe Herrera and Raul Colon. Dial Books, 2014.
 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2017