Rickey, Branch Wesley

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RICKEY, Branch Wesley

(b. 20 December 1881 near Stockdale, Ohio; d. 9 December 1965 in Columbia, Missouri), baseball executive who established a highly successful farm system for the development of major league prospects while with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and 1930s, and who brought about the racial integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 while with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickey was one of six children of Jacob Franklin Rickey, a farmer, and Emily Brown Rickey, a homemaker. He was named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and although Rickey dropped "Wesley" from his name at the age of twelve, his nearly impoverished parents instilled in him a deep and abiding religious faith, a strong work ethic, and a profound respect for learning. After attending a local school in Lucasville, Ohio, Rickey taught for two years in a nearby one-room country school. He then attended Ohio Wesleyan University in the town of Delaware, where he played and coached both baseball and football. He completed a five-year course of study in three years and received a Litt.B. from Ohio Wesleyan in 1904 and a B.A. in 1906. Rickey married Jane Moulton in 1906 and they eventually had six children, including Branch Rickey, Jr., who followed in his father's footsteps and became a Major League Baseball executive.

During his time at Ohio Wesleyan, Rickey launched a playing career in professional baseball. In 1903 and 1904 he played in the minor leagues before joining the St. Louis Browns in the American League as a catcher for the 1905 and 1906 seasons. Rickey's refusal to play on Sundays or drink and carouse with the other players was an early indication of his personal integrity and rigid moral principles. In the off-seasons he taught and coached at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Delaware College in Ohio, and Ohio Wesleyan. In 1907 the Browns traded him to the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), but after one season the development of a sore arm, hitting a mere .182, and contracting tuberculosis ended his playing career. After recovering from tuberculosis, Rickey coached baseball and, beginning in 1909, attended law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He obtained an LL.B. from Michigan in 1911 and set up a law practice in Boise, Idaho, the same year.

Rickey was less than successful as a practicing lawyer, and in 1913 he accepted a position with the St. Louis Browns as the de facto general manager. In September 1913 he also became the team's field manager, a post he held for the next two seasons. While failing to improve the Browns' record, Rickey, perhaps influenced by his own extensive formal education and the popular principles of scientific management, approached player training more systematically than had ever been done before. He lectured the players on both the fundamentals of the game and the importance of nurturing a strict personal morality, earning him the epithet "Professor of Baseball." The sportswriter who coined the nickname added that Rickey's "efficiency courses in sliding, baserunning, and batting mark a new departure in the game." Rickey later set up a preseason "baseball college" for instruction in fundamentals and introduced such new paraphernalia as sliding pits, batting cages, and batting tees.

In 1917 Rickey left the St. Louis Browns and joined their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals, in the National League. Initially he was employed as the general manager and president of the club, but from the 1919 through the 1925 seasons he also served—with indifferent success—as the team's field manager. Thereafter until 1943 he was officially the vice president and business manager of the Cardinals. In this capacity Rickey, along with the Cardinals' owner Sam Breadon, pioneered the construction of a farm system—a network of minor league clubs owned by a major league franchise.

Rickey's farm system represented a bold break from past practices. Earlier, the recruitment of raw talent had been left mainly in the hands of the lower-level, independently owned minor league franchises. A player who had proven his potential at that level of competition could either be purchased or drafted for a set price by a major league franchise. Without large financial resources to purchase players, franchises located in cities with smaller populations were put at a severe disadvantage. To offset this handicap, Rickey and Breadon decided to "grow" their own players. Rickey envisioned, as the baseball historian Jules Tygiel observed, "a vertically integrated network of teams owned by the parent club, ranging from the lowest to the highest level of organized baseball, through which players might be trained, sifted, and selected en route to the major leagues." Asserting his own version of the natural selection process described by Charles Darwin, Rickey said that "out of quantity comes quality." During the Great Depression of the 1930s he expanded the Cardinals scouting system and set up three-day tryout camps that attracted thousands of prospects. The most promising of these athletes were signed to contracts and then assigned to Cardinals' minor league franchises, where they had an opportunity to move up the hierarchy to the parent club. By 1936 the Cardinals' farm system had grown to twenty-eight minor league teams.

Rickey's farm system paid rich dividends. While located in the lowest population center in the National League (when the city's population was divided between the Cardinals and the Browns), the farm system furnished much of the personnel that from 1926 to 1946 produced nine league flags and six second-place finishes. The most famed of the Rickey teams was the "Gas House Gang" of the 1930s, a team Rickey believed was the best ever to play the game. The farm system also permitted the Cardinals to profit repeatedly by selling to other major league teams their surplus minor league talent and their established stars at the peak of their careers. By obtaining a percentage of each sale price, Rickey also profited. Although in the 1930s other teams began to copy the Cardinals' farm system, its heyday was actually short-lived. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, led a campaign against it, and after World War II new rules on player acquisition and the changing fortunes of the minor leagues brought about the demise of the Rickey-type farm systems.

After being fired by St. Louis in a dispute with Breadon in 1942, Rickey joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the president, general manager, and eventually co-owner. With the Dodgers, Rickey again proved to be a daring innovator. In October 1945, by signing Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers' farm team, Rickey defied organized baseball's unwritten but firm ban against African-American players. In 1947 Robinson advanced from the Royals to the parent club. While in the wake of World War II the national climate of opinion and the growing political power of African Americans in New York State created conditions more favorable to the racial integration of baseball than ever before, Rickey's bold act arose from a combination of moral and practical considerations. Rickey believed that racial segregation was immoral, but he also acknowledged that the employment of African-American players could strengthen his team and increase attendance. Notoriously parsimonious in salary negotiations, he believed that opening up a new pool of player talent could also reduce his team's salary costs. With the aid of Robinson and other African-American players, Rickey brought pennants to Brooklyn in 1947 and again in 1949, but a year later he was forced to sell his share of the club to the co-owner Walter O'Malley.

In 1951 Rickey began a five-year stint as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His talents for putting together winning teams did not bring a pennant to Pittsburgh until 1960, five years after he had been named as the chairman of the board, a position of nominal authority. In 1959 he accepted the presidency of the Continental League, a proposed third league that challenged baseball's major league monopoly. While the league never played a game, the threat it posed to the existing cartel led both the National and American Leagues to expand the number of their franchises. In 1962 Rickey returned to the Cardinals as an adviser and club president, but without the authority he had enjoyed earlier as the general manager of the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates. In 1965, while delivering a speech accepting his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, he suffered a heart attack; he died several weeks later.

Few executives left a more important legacy to the game of baseball than Rickey. His contribution was in part one of spectacular success in building winning baseball teams. Despite competing against franchises located in much larger cities, Rickey, by identifying early those players with major-league potential and building an elaborate farm system, made the St. Louis Cardinals franchise the most successful in baseball, with the possible exception of the New York Yankees. Rickey's role in breaching baseball's longstanding ban against African-American players was even more significant. It initiated not only what Tygiel aptly described as "baseball's great experiment," but helped to launch the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

For Rickey's observations on baseball, see his American Diamond (1965), written with Robert Riger. Biographical details may be found in Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action (1957), and David Lipman, Mr. Baseball: The Story of Branch Rickey (1966). For more recent and analytical examinations of aspects of Rickey's life in baseball, see especially John C. Chalberg, Rickey and Robinson: The Preacher, the Player, and America ' s Game (2000), and Jules Tygiel, Past Time: Baseball as History (2000). The Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress holds the Branch Rickey Papers, while both the archives of the Sporting News in St. Louis, Missouri, and the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, contain extensive Rickey clipping files. An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Dec. 1965).

Benjamin G. Raderm