April 14th, 2011
10:48 AM ET
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.
Watch Sr. White House Correspondent Ed Henry's report on this story
“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.”