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Branch Rickey’s Catholic Bible
A curious gift from his players provides a window onto American religion 60 years ago.

Branch Rickey

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Believing Christians are sensitive about the Bible. It would have been safer for the players to go with the King James Version, the mother of all English translations acceptable to Protestants. Here and there, Catholic Bibles differ from Protestant Bibles in the nuances of verses that lend themselves to Catholic or Protestant doctrine, depending on how the Hebrew or Greek is translated, but the most striking difference is in the table of contents. The Catholic Bible contains all the books in the Protestant Bible plus seven more, all in the Old Testament, for a total of 73 (or 72, if you count Jeremiah and Lamentations as two parts of a single book, which they aren’t, although the fiction endures in Catholic lore because 72 has evocative associations; see Luke 10:1, for example). Sharp disagreements about Scripture have divided Christians since the Reformation, and in that light the earnest language in the inscription at the front of Rickey’s Catholic Bible takes on added meaning. It leaves no room for reading into it any hint of triumphalism or, his grandson’s word, “narrowness.” In 1953, ecumenism was fashionable.

Church attendance was booming across denominations in Europe as well as America in the decade after the Second World War, and the notion of “mere Christianity,” which C. S. Lewis promoted on radio (in 1942–44) and later in print (1952), was much in the air. Many serious Protestants in the United States still maintained their principled objection to Catholicism, as the country was reminded when Kennedy ran for president in 1960, and Protestant dogmatism was matched by its Catholic counterpart, but the countercurrent to religious chauvinism ran strong. It was the Era of Good Feelings, Judeo-Christian edition.

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In Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Sociology (1955), Will Herberg, who served as National Review’s religion editor for a time in the 1960s, described a “triple melting pot” consisting of the three main categories of religious affiliation that together comprised 95 percent of the American population in the middle of the 20th century. Religious identity, he argued, had taken the place of ethnic identity in the construction of American society. Where the “pluribus” in “E pluribus unum” had once meant northern, southern, and eastern Europeans, with a nod to Africans and others, now it meant primarily Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Good citizens saluted each other across denominational lines, eager to affirm their common patriotism and allegiance to Judeo-Christian values.

Rickey’s temperament was suited to this moment. Public though never preachy about his faith, unless you count his preaching by example, he was broad-minded and gracious in matters religious. Mario Cuomo, the future governor of New York and an outfielder in the Pirates’ organization in 1952, recalled Rickey’s intense interest in religion, including the details of Cuomo’s experience as an altar boy and a “Shabbos goy.” Harold Parrott, the press secretary Rickey hired in his early days as GM of the Dodgers, was Catholic, and years later Parrott’s sons recounted that, when they were on the road together, Rickey would make sure to find a church where the boys could attend Mass while he sat in a back pew.

In Brooklyn, Rickey embraced the Catholic Youth Organization and was shaken when it withdrew its sponsorship of the Knothole Gang, a program that let kids go to ballgames for free, thanks to sponsors who paid the price of their admission. Leaders of the CYO had been troubled by the Dodgers’ field manager, Leo Durocher, and by 1947 they’d had enough. His reputation for brawling, gambling, and womanizing — his adulterous affair and eventual elopement with the actress Laraine Day was considered a white-hot scandal — “represents to [Catholic youth] an example in complete contradiction to our moral teachings,” Father Vincent Powell wrote on February 28, in a statement explaining the organization’s decision to cut ties with the team.

Durocher was a talented manager but, more to the point, Rickey’s “favorite reclamation project.” The “ferocious gentleman” of the Dodgers’ front office was not about to give up on him. “Can we ignore a tremendous force like this and surrender it to Satan?” Rickey said to Powell at a meeting in the Dodgers’ offices. “Doesn’t your church still dispense mercy and forgiveness?” Powell was not persuaded. Parrott later blamed Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ lawyer, “who carried a large prayer book in the Catholic Church” and could have put a stop to “the anti-Durocher nonsense.” Baseball historian Peter Golenbock observes that “Rickey, a thoughtful, religions man, was deeply hurt by Durocher’s public spanking by the Catholic Church.”



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