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The Untold, Pivotal Role Faith Played in Jackie Robinson's Life

Ed Henry, chief national correspondent for Fox News Channel, joined Glenn on radio Tuesday to talk about his new book 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story. While the 2013 movie 42 was excellent, it barely covered a key component to the Jackie Robinson story: faith. Henry set out to correct the record.

"I found out new information, which is why I wrote this book," Henry relayed. "Branch Rickey, right before signing Jackie to the first contract in 1945, secretly had doubts --- he had second thoughts, he almost pulled out. But it was a secret meeting with the minister in Brooklyn at a wonderful church that still stands today, Plymouth Church, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s."

The iconic church was pivotal in ending slavery in the 1800s, as well as launching the career of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in Major League Baseball, in the 1940s. In 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story, Henry explained how Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, needed to be in the presence of God to know he was doing the right thing.

"After pacing and praying on all of this . . . Branch Rickey finally sits down, starts crying and says to the minister, I've decided to sign Jackie to the first contract," Henry said.

Throughout Jackie Robinson's life, faith played a major role --- saving him as a young man and changing the course of history as a baseball player.

It took Henry nearly 10 years to research and write the book in his downtime. 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story is available in bookstores everywhere.

Enjoy the complimentary clip or read the transcript for details.

GLENN: Welcome to the program, Ed Henry. How are you, sir?

ED: Good. Thanks for having me on, Glenn.

GLENN: You bet. I would love to talk to you about politics and what you see going on. But I really want to spend some time talking about Jackie Robinson. Because I think until we get the story of America right and the story of our heroes, we're never going to be able to -- we're playing games, and we're never going to be able to fix our country.

ED: Yeah.

GLENN: So I'm glad you're here. And your book is absolutely fantastic. I don't -- I don't follow -- you know, I don't follow sports. But even I know who Jackie Robinson is.

ED: Uh-huh.

GLENN: At least that's what I thought until I read your book.

ED: Well, I appreciate that because I think there's a whole lot more to the story.

And Hollywood doesn't want, as you know, better than anyone, to touch faith and God. They don't want to talk about that. And so there was a movie, 42, about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed him to the first contract to break the color barrier in major legal baseball, which obviously, as you suggest did not just change sports. It changed America for the better, forever.

GLENN: Yeah.

ED: But Hollywood, you know, the 42 movie was wonderful. But it did not -- it barely mentioned God. I found out new information, which is why I wrote this book, that Branch Rickey, right before signing Jackie to the first contract in 1945, secretly had doubts. He had second thoughts. He almost pulled out. But it was a secret meeting with the minister in Brooklyn at a wonderful church that still stands today, Plymouth Church, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

So when you talk about getting our history right, this was a pivotal church in helping end slavery in the 1800s. And then in 1945, Branch Rickey, I learned -- and it's in 42 Faith -- basically goes to this minister and says, "I don't know if I can go through with this," because this was such a controversial move in '45 to move to integrate Major League Baseball. And after pace and praying on all of this, a 45-minute meeting that I uncover the details of, which this minister in Brooklyn, Branch Rickey finally sits down, starts crying and says to the minister, I've decided to sign Jackie to the first contract. I needed to be in your presence, he says to the minister. I needed to be in God's presence to know it was the right thing to do. I thought --

GLENN: Okay. So if this were story were told today or happened today, here's how this story would be spun: That Branch Rickey wanted to do it because he was going to have all kinds of publicity and that would be good for the club. And he made this pilgrimage to a black church that was a perfect church because of the history so everybody would know. And he was only doing this for show.

ED: Yeah.

GLENN: Correct?

ED: Yeah, I think --

GLENN: Correct that.

ED: Correct, that that would be the way it might be played now. But the fact of the matter is what this led me to do was go on a journey and think and figure out and research. And I spent almost ten years doing this on the side, you know, on the back-burner, while covering politics, as you said at the top. It made me say, wait a second, how much did God and faith in God play in this monumental decision, that, again, wasn't just baseball? But maybe more importantly, how much did faith play in helping Jackie Robinson overcome people shouting the N-word at him, literally threatening his life because he wanted to play baseball.

And I found a lot of new information. I'll tell you one quick story about Branch Rickey. In the early 1900s, he grows up on a farm in Ohio, along the Kentucky border. And he goes to his mom, Branch Rickey does, and says, I want to become a Big League ballplayer. She says no. She was a Methodist and said, "All baseball players do is drink and swear and party, and you're not doing that."

Well, Branch Rickey goes back to her the next day. This is somebody who didn't take no for an answer obviously, or he might have backed down and not integrated the game of baseball, decades later. But in the early 1900s, he said, mom, if you let me chase my dream to play Big League Baseball, I will never play on Sunday.

And do you know that Rickey became a big league player before he was a famous executive? A lot of people don't know that. He never played on Sunday. It's one reason why he got cut because owners of various teams said, "Why am I paying you a full week's salary when you won't play on Sunday to honor God?"

And then fast-forward to after he signs Jackie Robinson, and he's this famous executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I interviewed Branch Rickey's grandson. Branch Rickey III, who is still alive, he said that in the '40s and '50s, Rickey would never go to Ebbets Field on Sunday, even though he was running the team. His parents had died. Glenn, he had already -- that commitment he made to his parents was basically null and void, but he felt like he needed to honor that. That shows commitment, character, we don't see today. It shows a commitment to God that people are frankly scared to talk about and say out loud today. But Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, they were one white, one black, different generations. Didn't have a lot in common, but they both had a deep faith in God. And that's why I think there's a lot more to this story that people didn't want to talk about.

GLENN: So let's talk about Jackie Robinson. I had absolutely no idea that, A, he was a Sunday teacher and that he gave a lot of sermons.

ED: Yes. And I want to tell you about some of them. First of all, in terms of Sunday school, this is a man, Jackie Robinson, who grow up -- you know, he's raised by a single mom in Pasadena, California. We hear about this a lot today, not just in the African-American community. Communities all around the country. And say, "Well, these kids end up joining gangs. And they've got no hope." Well, guess what, Jackie Robinson joined a gang. He's a teenager in Pasadena. He has a criminal record. He was arrested several times, Glenn. And people don't know that about the story. And you know how he got out of it? His mom Mali, Mali Robinson was a woman of faith. She happened also to be a Methodist, like Branch Rickey and his family. Interesting connection. Coincidental perhaps, but still interesting.

And a Christian minister named Reverend Carl Downs in Pasadena pulled Jackie aside as a teenager and said, "You're going the wrong way. Unless you get your life back on track, you're going to waste all this athletic talent."

So the Sunday school you mentioned is, I find in my research that Jackie becomes this four-letter man at UCLA: Baseball, basketball, football, and track and field. He stars as a football player at UCLA on Saturdays. Gets up Sunday.

He's a running back. So he's beaten and bruised, like any other running back. And what does he do on Sunday morning? Gets out of bed. Gets off that UCLA campus and goes back to Pasadena in order to teach Sunday school with the Reverend Carl Downs. This minister had saved his life, and he felt like he had a commitment to him.

Again, to me, there was a wonderful parallel there with Branch Rickey about that commitment to his parents about faith and not playing. Not working on Sundays.

Jackie Robinson -- how many athletes today, either college or pro, get out of bed on Sunday morning and say, you know, I'm going to teach Sunday school before I go to the game or before I do this or that? This is somebody who gave back and understood it. We can get into the sermons as well that he did after his playing days. But I think faith in God is at the center of the story and that's why we call it 42 Faith.

GLENN: I will tell you that I teach Sunday school, and it is impossible -- almost every week, I think, I'm going to call in sick. I just -- I've got so many things going on. Blah, blah. I'm not Jackie Robinson.

ED: Right.

GLENN: Jackie Robinson is not only playing and doing all these things, but also, throughout his life, he is pushed up against the wall. When he first comes out and he's set to make his debut, there's a sniper that has threatened and said --

ED: Yep.

GLENN: -- I'm taking him out. If he steps up to bat, I'm taking him out.

ED: Yep.

And you know what happened? We see in the movie, 42, that there white players from the deep South who circulated a petition and said, "If Jackie gets promoted to the Big Leagues in 1947, we're going to walk." And so we can't sanitize that history. There were white players, teammates who didn't want to play with them.

But you know what I found in my research is there were white teammates like Ralph Branca, a very tall pitcher. And you're right. There were these reports that came into the Dodgers. April 15th, 1947. This is now the 17th anniversary that we're celebrating, of Jackie's first game. He said, there's a sniper. Going to be at Ebbets Field. They're going to kill Jackie when he goes on the field.

And Ralph Branca made a show on the field of standing next to Jackie and kind of throwing his arm around him. And Jackie, thankfully, is not shot. But after the game, one of Branca's brothers comes rushing up to him. He had a big family.

Said, Ralphie, what were you thinking? You were standing right next to this guy. This black player, who was going to get shot. There's a sniper out there, and you were standing next to him. What are you thinking?

And he said, there are worse ways to go than to stand up for a teammate. That was a white pitcher. He was like 6-3, 6-4. He was a big target for a sniper. That's why I mentioned his height.

And yet this white player said, I'm going to stand up for a black teammate. That to me is all about not just faith, but about America, number one. And, number two, you talk about commitment from Jackie. You talk about yourself teaching Sunday school. Jackie's wife Rachel is still alive, about 95 years old. And she remembers that first year when Jackie had snipers out there. He had people sending him letters, saying, we're going to kill you. People shouting the N-word from the stands.

She says that after playing at Ebbets Field every day -- afternoon, he would take the subway home to the small apartment they had in Manhattan. And before he went to bed, do you know what Jackie Robinson, this famous ballplayer did? She says he got down on his hands and knees and prayed to God.

And I think, again, that commitment -- I'm not saying that faith was the only thing that enabled him to play in the athletics field. He had courage. He had character. But faith in God was at the center of Jackie Robinson's life. And it was not something that a lot of people talked about before for various reasons. And I think that image of this famous ballplayer getting on his hands and knees, praying to God every night before bed, shows that he got that. He understood that despite his fame, despite him becoming a civil rights icon, he was imperfect and still wanted to bow down before God.

GLENN: I will tell you that I know -- Penn Jillette is a friend of mine, an atheist, and he has courage and principles. And I know a lot of religious people who don't have courage and principles. But somebody like Jackie Robinson, it's hard to believe that it didn't -- that wasn't what was really driving. We're talking to Ed Henry of the Fox News Channel. Written a new book called 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story.

As you were researching this, did anybody come to mind at all? Are you seeing these people, Ed, in your everyday life? Are you seeing them anywhere in positions of power?

ED: No. I think that's something that -- and I'm an optimistic story. But as someone -- as I research, as I thought about men of character like Branch Rickey, like Jackie Robinson, like Ralph Branca, who I mentioned, who stood up on faith -- and, you know, you mentioned the sermons that Jackie gave. I mean, I found in his personal papers at the Library of Congress, all of these sermons that Jackie gave at churches all across America in the 1960s. He had hung up his glove in the beginning at '57. The baseball glove. So in the '60s, he's retired. He's working for Chock Full O' Nuts. He makes the baseball Hall of Fame. But, again, he gives back. He goes to churches. Not just black churches, but churches all around America. And let me read one quick passage, where he talked about how he was skeptical about federal government assistance programs being what would help deal with the civil rights crisis, would deal with the long hot summer of 1967.

This was a sermon in '67. And he said, my dear friends in this congregation, I think the black man is just a little weary of this constant help of helping him. I think to a large degree, the poverty programs have fallen flat on their face, coming to resemble just some more handouts, a cut higher than welfare.

God helps mankind, Jackie Robinson said. But he helps those who helps himself. So here is this civil rights icon saying that in 1977. Not in a public square, but in a church, number one, Glenn. And number two, 1967, 50 years ago. Think about that statement today. We don't have a lot of people in public life saying that. And here's a black leader saying that. A black ball player who made the Hall of Fame and an icon.

GLENN: So, Ed, you and I both know what the last -- since 9/11 has been like. Especially at the Fox News Channel. You've been there for a long time, longer than I was.

ED: Yeah.

GLENN: And you know what it was like when I was there. And mainly because of me causing all the trouble. Sorry for that, by the way.

(chuckling)

GLENN: Was this --

ED: I don't know where you're going with this.

GLENN: Is this -- was this your way of searching for some sort of bedrock that made life make sense, that gave you courage to stand? Was this just a -- was this just your stamp collecting thing just to take your mind -- what happened to you with this?

ED: It started in my stamp collecting, in that I have a passion for baseball. And a lot of people ask me, "Well, why in the world did you write a baseball book?" I mean, number one, I don't think the world is begging for a book about Obamacare from Ed Henry. I don't feel like -- you know, how many politicians are out there -- no offense to any of my colleagues or anyone. And number two is, you know, it's not really a baseball book.

GLENN: Yeah.

ED: It's a book about faith in God. And I'm a Catholic. I'm imperfect. But you always strive to be better. And Jackie Robinson said in these personal papers, I found, there are better Christians than me. I'm imperfect. And here's Jackie Robinson, who's pretty darn close to perfect.

But he said, I just did the best that I knew how. Paraphrasing. And I didn't want to let down my mother or Mr. Rickey. He always called him Mr. Rickey.

And what did Mr. Rickey, the general manager have in common with Jackie Robinson? Again, different generations. Different skin color. Came of age in different parts of the country. But they both -- you know, both the Robinson families and the Rickey families had deep faith in God. And when Jackie Robinson says, "Look, I'm not perfect, but I did the best I knew how." For me, this is a kind of project that finds some deeper meaning. And I think in Jackie Robinson, it's not just a baseball story. It's a story about life. And it's a story about how faith in God is at the center of our lives, whether people want to say it out loud or not.

GLENN: I will tell you, the book endorsed by Bill O'Reilly. Brad Thor. Juan Williams and Larry King. You couldn't get more eclectic than that. Oh, and Jim Brown. So no more eclectic than that.

ED: Jim Brown.

Well, I appreciate it.

GLENN: Ed, thank you so much. The name of the book is 41 Faith. A great read.

STU: 42 Faith.

ED: Forty-two.

GLENN: 42 Faith.

STU: That's the prequel. It's coming out next year --

GLENN: Do I understand 42 if I only read 41?

ED: 43 is going to be the best.

(laughter)

GLENN: All right.

Ed Henry, thank you very much. And much success.

ED: Thanks, buddy.

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