Race, Baseball, and the Church: Proximity

February 27, 2015

Among the ritual sounds of spring, there are none more significant to me than the popping of baseball glove leather and the bat connecting with the ball. Baseball is uniquely a game of particularities, people, and place. At any moment I can think back to my Brevard Avenue backyard pitching to my dad or re-live the thrill of a Friday night game at tiny Joe Marshall field in Montgomery, Alabama.

The familial and cultural rootedness of baseball makes its fans both nostalgic about the game and zealous for its history, heroes, and statistics. The game itself is timeless, not bound by a clock, but the past is always present in baseball. Tragically, some of the greatest players to ever compete in the national pastime were never permitted to put on a Major League baseball uniform. John Henry Lloyd, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge, and Judy Johnson were a few of the players who were never allowed to display that they were the equal or better of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mathewson, and Groves on the baseball diamond.

The de facto baseball color line began in post-Civil War America. Slavery had been officially outlawed by the 13th Amendment but not much else had changed regarding racist attitudes and practices in our nation. Legislation was powerless in eradicating racial animosity and fear. While the Negro Leagues heroically blossomed in the insidious environment of the Jim Crow segregation era and became a life-giving source of pride in the black community, the sad reality is that racial hatred resulted in some of the game’s immortals being eclipsed in the national consciousness of many Americans.

In defiance of the other Major League general managers and owners, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, thus breaking Major League Baseball’s longstanding color barrier. Rickey would later say, “Of course the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln made the southern Negro slave free, but it never did make the white man morally free. He remained a slave to his inheritances. And some are even today” (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet, Atlanta, GA, January 20, 1956). Rickey’s courageous act was 17 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There is no greater proof that the Negro League stars were every bit the equal or superiors of their white Major League counterparts than the success former Negro League players had in Major League baseball after the color barrier was broken. Henry Aaron of the Indianapolis Clowns, Ernie Banks of the Kansas City Monarchs, Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants, Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, and Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons all became stars and have been inducted in Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, one the most thrilling memories of my childhood came on April 8, 1974 when Henry Aaron hit homerun 715 and listening to Milo Hamilton declare, “There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!”

Branch Rickey meticulously planned and shaped the master narrative for integrating the national pastime. Rickey explained that he knew he had to find “a man of exceptional courage, and exceptional intelligence, a man of basically fine character.” Rickey said of Jackie Robinson, “God was with me when I picked Jackie. I don’t think any other man could have done what he did those first two or three years.” Rickey believed that integration was God’s will and asserted, “I believe that a man can play baseball as coming to him from a call from God” (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club”).

After reading Slave and Citizen by Frank Tannenbaum, a professor at Columbia University, Rickey found what he believed was one of the keys to the successful integration of baseball—proximity. He told his assistant Arthur Mann “This is it!” and quoted from Tannenbaum’s book, “Physical proximity, slow cultural intertwining … the slow process of moral identification work their way against all seemingly absolute systems of values and prejudices” (Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, 154-155).

In 1956, in a speech to the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” in Atlanta, Georgia Rickey explained how proximity worked to integrate baseball. Rickey told a story publically for the first time about sitting with Clay Hopper, Robinson’s first manager with the Montreal Royals, watching a spring training game. Robinson made a play in the field that Rickey described as “one of those tremendous remarkable plays that very few people can make.” Rickey asked Hopper, “Did you ever see a man make a play to beat it?” Rickey explains Hopper’s response,

Now this fellow comes from Greenwood, Mississippi. … He took me and shook me and his face that far from me and he said, “Do you really think that a ‘nigger’ is a human being, Mr. Rickey?”

Rickey did not answer Hopper because as his biographer Lee Lowenfish explains, “There was nothing in Rickey’s formidable arsenal of intellect and vocabulary that could undo in a few words what generations of prejudice had created within the heart and mind” (Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, 392). Hopper begged Rickey not to put Robinson on his team, and Rickey told Hopper he had no choice in the matter. Rickey explains that proximity accomplished six months later what words could not,

[Hopper] said to me, “I want to take back what I said to you last spring.” He said, “I’m ashamed of it.” “Now,” he said, “you may have plans for him to be on your club,” – and he was, “but,” he said, “if you don’t have plans to have him on the Brooklyn club,” he said, “I would like to have him back in Montreal.” And then he told me that he was not only a great ball player good enough for Brooklyn, but he said that he was a fine gentleman.

Proximity. Proximity, says Tannenbaum, will solve this thing if you can have enough of it (“One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet, Atlanta, GA, January 20, 1956).

Rickey believed in the power of proximity. Put the right man with the right ability and the right character together practicing, traveling, and playing with other men, as an equal, in the pursuit of a goal bigger than any of them individually, and racial animosity would begin to lessen. He believed that shared struggle and living life together would produce empathy for one another. Proximity was an idea that resonated with Rickey because of his Christian conviction about the equality of all of God’s image bearers.

The church of Jesus Christ ought to be the preeminent display of proximity in a fallen world, but sadly, in contemporary America, it is not. Studies reveal that the church in America remains one of the nations most segregated institutions (Scheitle, C., & Dougherty, K. (2010) Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations. Sociological Inquiry, 80(3), 405-423). The unity of the church as “one new man” across ethnic and cultural boundaries is a foundational sign of gospel reconciliation (Eph 2:15).

Living and striving together for the kingdom of Christ in local churches as cruciform community, “the household of God,” is how we learn to love and listen to one another (Eph 2:19). We are called to walk in line with the gospel together in local churches that display reconciliation with God by reconciliation with one another. When that happens, the cultural challenges involving race and ethnicity will not be political talking points and abstractions but family conversations.

Proximity, brothers and sisters in Christ, proximity.

Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet,
Atlanta, Georgia, January 20, 1956. Broadcast on WERD 860 AM radio.

(Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Branch Rickey Papers)

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24