Politics is said to make strange bedfellows. While that is certainly true in a sense, I’m not sure what the following excerpt from the LDS Church’s Improvement Era of 1949 is exactly. Its not politics, but it certainly is somewhat strange. Often today our perception of Mormonism before 1978 is that African-Americans were ignored or dismissed because of the priesthood ban and the minuscule representation of African-Americans in Utah.
However, when the Improvement Era wanted to make a point, they apparently weren’t above using Jackie Robinson’s fame to help. And in this case, Robinson had said what the LDS Church wanted to hear.
By 1949 the Church had campaigned against the use of liquor and tobacco for decades, endeavoring to show the evils and health consequences of disobeying the word of wisdom. As the Church’s official organ, the Improvement Era had a regular “No-Liquor-Tobacco column” in which the magazine extolled abstinence and praised healthy living. As you can see, Robinson’s statement fit the column perfectly:
No-Liquor-Tobacco Column: What Others Say
Conducted by Dr. Joseph F. Merrill
Says the famous Jackie Robinson, of the Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball team:
The other day a little boy asked me how he could become a big league baseball player. I guess there are hundreds of kids who want to know the same thing. … No one can stay in the majors if he doesn’t stay in shape and train hard and long. He shouldn’t smoke, drink, stay out late, or eat improper foods. He should get plenty of sleep and take care of his body.
Improvement Era, v52 n9
While the presence of the statement might seem strange to us today, I’m not sure that it would have been quite so strange then. The Church’s magazines then regularly cited non-Mormon sources when they contributed to the message. And the relatively few African-Americans in Utah meant that issues like the priesthood ban simply didn’t come up very often in the lives of the vast majority of Church members. I suspect that Robinson’s exceptional performance on the ball field simply overwhelmed any race issues among members of the Church. Sure he wouldn’t have been given the priesthood if he had joined the Church, but that wasn’t an important issue for most Church members in 1949—not like the word of wisdom was.