By some accounts, he might have been the godliest man in baseball. He attended church regularly. He didn’t drink. And he was happily married with six children. Some called him “The Mahatma” (holy one).
By other accounts, he was bull-headed, arrogant and miserly.
But, by all accounts, he changed major league baseball for the better when he signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1946 and promoted him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. His name was Branch Rickey.
Race for Rickey had always been an issue. When he coached at his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, one of his players was Black, Charlie Thomas. As such, Thomas was denied a room at the hotel during a road trip. Rickey returned to the room to find the young man rubbing his skin disconsolately, saying he wished he could rub away the color of his skin.
In choosing Jackie Robinson, Rickey chose a man athletically gifted, college-educated, and fiercely proud of his race, called in the parlance of the day, a Race Man. [Thomas himself persevered and became a dentist. Of Rickey, he said, “No man could have treated me better.”]
Rickey, a man of deep faith, wanted equal opportunities for all races. However, Rickey was equally driven to win. And that was a key reason he wanted to break baseball’s color line. The talent level in the Negro Leagues was exceptional, and Rickey wanted it for his teams. Winning also meant more revenue, and that was something Rickey excelled at generating. And it’s worth noting that as a strict Methodist, he did not participate in Sunday games. But, as many noted, he had no qualms about accepting the gate receipts from those Sunday pastimes.
Rickey invented baseball’s farm system when an executive with the St. Louis Cardinals. While he was a shrewd general manager and coach, his own playing skills were limited. In 1907 he made the roster of the New York Highlanders (later called the Yankees). He batted under .200, ranked last in fielding percentage for outfielders and catchers, and memorably set a record by allowing the most steals in a nine-inning game – 13!
In his own words
While Rickey’s been dead for more than a half-century and played in the game more than a century ago, his lessons live on. A few I share here are excerpts from Branch Rickey’s Little Blue Book: Wit and Strategy from Baseball’s Last Wise Man.
“The ethics of the game of baseball would be violated if man did not practice to become proficient in deception. In other words, you can’t go to heaven if you don’t try to fool the batter.”
“They call you an extremist if you want integration now… To advise moderation is like going to a stickup man and saying to him, ‘Don’t use a gun. That’s violent. Why not be a pickpocket instead?’ A moderate man is a moral pickpocket.”
“President Abraham Lincoln sat in his chair almost all of the time, and there was no more industrious man than he. Industry is not the expenditure of shoe leather. It is having ideas—ideas about the job you hold, how to improve it and yourself.”
Rickey told his children he had “three abides.” They are honesty, industriousness, and kindness. The latter was significant in marriage. “Infinite kindness – a kindness that transcends the form of courtesy… Out of infinite kindness grow real love and understanding and tolerance and warmth. Nothing can take the place of such an enduring asset.”
A final story
At 83, Rickey checked himself out of the hospital and then drove himself a hundred miles to give a speech. As told in Ken Burns documentary series, Baseball, Rickey reached the podium and said he had biblical story about “spiritual courage” to share. He paused momentarily and said he could not continue. Rickey collapsed , and days later died, without uttering another word.
Jackie Robinson attended his funeral as did Bobby Bragan, who as a player tried to dissuade Rickey from integrating the Dodgers. Bragan, who recanted his views, came to the service “because Branch Rickey made me a better man.”
“It is not the honor you take with you,” Rickey said, “but the heritage you leave behind.”
Note: I would like to thank Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, for his reading of Branch Rickey’s Little Blue Book as part of his “Open Book” series. Simon’s commentary shaped my thinking for this piece.