They intended it as a gift, but these 60 years later it’s a time capsule. More than half the players on the roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates got together in the spring of 1953 and gave a Catholic Bible to their boss, general manager Branch Rickey, now known to history as the man who in the 1940s signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated major-league baseball. Rickey was a devout Methodist, and so the gift from his players is curious — a token, apparently, of the sectarian differences between themselves and him. What were they thinking?
To judge from the faux-leather cover and the title page, the Bible is neither rare nor noteworthy: The Holy Trinity Edition (a modified Douay-Challoner-Rheims version), edited by the Reverend John P. O’Connell (1951), had a good run in the United States in the middle of the last century. The copy in question lay hidden in a donation bin at the Sacramento Public Library when, in January of this year, a book repairer noticed the dedication to Rickey, did some quick research, and realized she was holding an item of historical significance.
“Presented to Branch Rickey,” the dedication page reads. “May this good Book be a continued inspiration to one who has ever cherished the word of God. With sincere humility we respectfully dedicate this Holy Catholic Bible.” It’s dated May 7, 1953.
In the lower right-hand corner is the note “see page 1,” a reference to the 30 signatures of “the Catholic players of the Pirates” — actually, 27 players plus two coaches and the first-year field manager, Fred Haney — neatly placed in two columns under the heading “Pirates 1953.” Back then, the maximum size of a major-league roster was 40 men for the first 31 days of the season and then 25 men until September. When they signed their names together on May 7, those 27 players must have known that soon, by May 15, some of them would be cut from the roster, teammates no longer.
“There is a place for mysteries,” Rickey’s grandson, Branch Barrett Rickey, tells me when I ask him what he knows about the gift’s context. Rickey III, as he’s more commonly known, is in his 16th year as president of the triple-A Pacific Coast League. He worked in the front offices of the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds before serving as president of the American Association, the longstanding minor league (established 1902) that was disbanded after the 1997 season; his father, Branch Rickey Jr., was an executive with the Dodgers and Pirates.
For stretches of his youth, Rickey III had “daily interface with the materials in his [grandfather’s] library,” but he doesn’t recall ever coming across the Catholic Bible. With a swipe of Occam’s razor he offers that, for the players, it was “more likely a gift of convenience than a gift of persuasion or narrowness.” It was “something of value to themselves.” To illustrate his conjecture about the genesis of the gift, he sketches a scene where a ballplayer points to a Bible and says to his teammates, “We’re not going to use this. Let’s pass this along to Mr. Rickey.”
It may have begun as an idea casually tossed off, but it must have taken quite a bit of forethought to carry it out. Someone had to decide what to write in the dedication. Someone had to determine which players were Catholic and then arrange for all of them to sign the book. Rickey III relents — he admits that he finds some theories about the exact motives for giving his grandfather a Catholic Bible to be “tantalizing.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.