A Powerful Friendship
I must confess, I am not a big fan of sports. What I do enjoy, however, are the human dramas that happen in the context of sports. One of those, the story of Jackie Robinson and Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, has stayed with me.
Jackie Robinson, as most people know, was the first African-American player in the major leagues, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. On the first day of spring training, when his white teammates stood by, refusing to acknowledge Robinson, Reese crossed the field and shook his hand. “It was the first time I’d ever shaken the hand of a black man,” Reese said in a 1997 interview for the New York Times. “But I was the captain of the team. It was my job . . . to greet the new players.” Though he had grown up in segregated Kentucky, Reese treated Robinson the same as any other player, setting an example that his teammates eventually followed.
When spring training ended, however, Jackie Robinson had to face racism on a much larger scale. People in the stands at their games shouted racial slurs, threw trash, and spit on Robinson as he took the field. According to the biography Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad, Robinson had promised the Dodgers’ owner that for two seasons, he would not respond to provocation from the crowds. At a first season game in Cincinnati, the spectators were particularly harsh, and Robinson was nearly overwhelmed with a feeling that things would never get any better. Seeing the crowd’s mistreatment of his friend, Reese walked silently onto the field and put a hand on Robinson’s shoulder.
“Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while,” Robinson later said. “He didn’t say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me . . . and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that. I will never forget it.” Reese stared the hecklers down until they stopped. Though his difficulties were far from over, the moment was a turning point for Robinson. He knew that no matter what happened, he was not alone. He and Reese remained friends until 1972, when Reese was one of the pall bearers at Robinson’s funeral.
We often underestimate the power of a simple act of standing by someone in their time of need. We worry about saying the right things, but sometimes the right thing to say is nothing at all. Just being with someone, reminding them that they are cared about, that they are not alone, speaks a message they will never forget.
God, thank you for those who stand with us when we need it most. Help us to be there for one another, to bear one another’s burdens as you have taught us. We thank you most of all that you, God, are with us in the most difficult moments of life. Your silent presence may be the only answer to our prayers sometimes, but it is powerful beyond words. Amen.
-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent