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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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Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, citing an “accumulation of unpleasant incidents,” suspended Durocher for the season on April 9, six days before Jackie Robinson’s major-league debut with the Dodgers. It was an eventful spring in Brooklyn. The racial desegregation of major-league baseball quickly overshadowed the Durocher controversy; the most ordinary (to us, 60 years later) instances of interracial civility were considered newsworthy. Reporting on the first consecration of a black Catholic bishop in the United States, for example, in the spring of 1953 — about two weeks before the presentation of the Catholic Bible to Rickey — Time magazine thought it important to note that “whites and Negroes sat together during the ceremony and mingled in the yard outside.” America was exploring new territory, and Branch Rickey was rightly hailed as a pioneer.

On a parallel track, Americans were congratulating themselves on their postwar season of ecumenical comity, which in its own way was raising the tone of civil society. To them, the Catholic-vs.-Protestant coloration of the “anti-Durocher nonsense” must have looked like a regression to ancient hostilities. For Catholics concerned to protect their emerging identity as team players in the American Century, the spectacle of hard-line priests making trouble at Ebbets Field may not have risen to the level of a Savonarola, but it played into an unhelpful stereotype.

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In Pittsburgh, the final stop in his baseball career, Rickey provided everyone in the Pirates’ organization with a subscription to Guideposts, a Christian, Protestant-inflected self-help magazine co-founded by Norman Vincent Peale. It was a small gesture, but meaningful: He gave a Christian publication that was of value to himself. With their gift of the Catholic Bible, the Catholic players reciprocated — whether in part as atonement for his treatment at the hands of some stern Catholics in Brooklyn several years earlier, we’ll probably never know, though his grandson finds the theory “plausible.”

Fred Haney’s involvement in all this warrants special mention because he wasn’t Catholic, only philo-Catholic. (In 1969, in an audience with Paul VI, he would explain a bit about baseball to the pope, who mostly wasn’t getting it. Haney presented him with baseballs autographed by Bowie Kuhn, Warren Giles, Joe Cronin, and Joe DiMaggio. “Ah,” the pope said. “DiMaggio!”) The manager’s signature, at the top of the left-hand column on the dedication page of the Bible, is the first on the list. Rickey’s biographer, Lee Lowenfish, after diplomatically asking whether I was the one who suggested that Haney might have instigated the gift (I didn’t), calls it “a very intelligent thesis.”

The Bible went on display for a few weeks at the Sacramento Public Library last winter after the discovery of its historical interest. Rickey III is working with librarians there to place the book permanently with a historical society in Portsmouth, Ohio, his grandfather’s birthplace.

— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.



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