There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of 42, the 2013 film that depicts the inspiring story of Jackie Robinson. Observers noticed it at the time, pointing out that the film mostly ignored the role that faith played in Robinson’s life and in Branch Rickey’s decision to sign him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. And the film is not the only account of Robinson’s life that downplays religion. While Rickey’s stalwart Methodist convictions have been widely recognized, most biographies of Robinson provide limited attention to his own faith.
Not so in Michael G. Long’s and Chris Lamb’s Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography(Westminster John Knox Press) and Ed Henry’s 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story(Thomas Nelson). Published earlier this year, both books claim to offer a thorough look at the religious dimensions of Robinson’s life.
Ed Henry worked at CNN for eight years before joining Fox News Channel in 2011 as chief national correspondent. His desire to write a book about Jackie Robinson’s faith grew out of his reporter’s instincts. In 2007 freelance journalist Donna Shor told him that her father-in-law, Rev. L. Wendell Fifield, was involved with Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson. In 1945, she claimed, Rickey visited Fifield’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, where he prayed for assurance from God that signing Robinson was the right move to make. Hearing Shor’s story, Henry writes, “sent me on this journey to find out how much of a role faith played” in bringing Robinson and Rickey together and in empowering Robinson to succeed.
Four years later, Henry heard from Shor again. This time she told him that her daughter, Donnali Fifield, found an essay that Rev. Fifield’s wife, June, had written in the mid-1960s about Branch Rickey’s encounter with God at Plymouth Church. Henry read a copy of the essay. He and his producer, Jamie Crawford, then published a story on CNN revealing the details.
June Fifield’s essay about Branch Rickey is a central piece of 42 Faith—an odd move, given that Rickey has received plenty of attention for his religious convictions. That Rickey visited a church to pray before deciding to sign Robinson is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Henry portrays the essay as a “remarkable historical twist.” It is indeed interesting, but more for what it might reveal about June Fifield than for what it reveals about Rickey. In Fifield’s own words, she wrote the essay as “a plea to Jackie Robinson to realize what went into the launching of his career—that someone cared enough to grope for wisdom beyond himself, to call upon God’s guidance—and that the man who did this was, in common erroneous parlance, ‘white.’” That is a fascinating claim to make, coming as it did in the mid-1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Henry, however, offers no insight into why June Fifield wanted Jackie Robinson to remember that a white man helped him.
Joining Fifield’s essay as a central feature of 42 Faith is Ed Henry himself. Nearly every chapter begins with details about Henry’s investigative work. He describes visiting the Chicago hotel where a Brooklyn Dodgers scout first met with Robinson. He details his visit to Robinson’s old neighborhood. He stops by the place where Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ old stomping grounds, used to stand. And then there are the interviews. Henry makes sure to insert himself into the narrative, describing the scene of the interview and, of course, the dogged, hard-working reporter asking all of the right questions. So persistent is Henry in making himself the star of the show that he concludes the book with a vignette about…his book. Robinson’s habit of kneeling for nightly prayers provides the set-up for Henry’s description of how God provided a publisher for 42 Faith after Henry had almost given up hope.