Rickey, Wesley Branch

views updated Jun 08 2018

Wesley Branch Rickey


American baseball executive

The names Rickey and Robinson will always be linked in the annals of sport because of their respective roles in breaking major league baseball's "color line," a seminal event which is regarded as having had a monumental effect perhaps most of all symbolically, but also in a practical sense on the Civil Rights movement. Wesley Branch Rickey's determination, in the face of opposition from other baseball owners, to sign a black player and desegregate professional baseball; his recruitment and signing of Jackie Robinson ; and his orchestration of Robinson's debut in the major leagues opened the door for blacks in baseball and helped change the course of American history.

Raised on a Farm

Wesley Branch Rickey was born in 1881 in southern Ohio, the son of Jacob Franklin Rickey, a Wesleyite Methodist, and raised on a farm. Rickey was greatly influenced by his mother, Emily, who helped to give him a sense of moral purpose and a strong religious faith. Rickey attended school in a one-room schoolhouse in Rush Township, Ohio and later in the nearby town of Lucasville but was unable to earn a high school diploma

(since the school didn't offer one). After completing his schooling, Rickey, who was then in his late teens, was encouraged by James Finney, a school superintendent and coach, to take an exam to become a schoolteacher. After a course of intensive self-study, Rickey earned a teaching certificate and taught for two years in a school in Scioto County. Rickey learned early that he had to show his command of the class by standing up to rowdy students, which he did on two notable occasions, using his fists to put strong, older boys in their place.

In March 1901, Rickey enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU) in Delaware, Ohio, a Methodist school. He had not been expected to go to college and had to talk his father into letting him attend. Rickey played on the OWU football and baseball teams in his freshman year. To help pay school costs, he also played baseball during summer vacation for a local semipro team, earning $25 a game. When he returned to school, Rickey found to his surprise that playing for money had caused him to lose his athletic eligibility. The president of OWU, Dr. James W. Bashford, gave Rickey a way to get back his eligibility by suggesting that he sign a paper denying the charges that he had played for money, but Rickey said he could not do so and attest to something that was false. In the spring of 1903, the OWU baseball coach resigned and Bashford, who had been impressed by Rickey's honesty and character in the loss of eligibility incident, asked Rickey, who was in his sophomore year, to take over as the school's baseball coach. During his first season, Rickey witnessed a couple of notable instances of overt racism against the only black player on the OWU team, first baseman Charles Thomas. These incidents made an "indelible" impression on him.

Tentative Steps in the Big Leagues

Rickey graduated from OWU in 1904 with a B.Litt. degree. Meanwhile, he had become a professional baseball player during the summer months, when on vacation from college. He played minor league baseball for two consecutive seasons and at the end of the 1904 season was promoted from the Dallas team in the Texas League to the Cincinnati Reds, who were in need of help at Rickey's position, catcher. He joined the Reds in September, but was sent packing (and never got into a game) after the manager found out that Rickey, because of religious scruples, refused to play baseball on Sundays. Rickey made it to the major leagues again in 1905 and played parts of two seasons as a catcher for the St. Browns. He also played in 1907 for the New York Highlanders (the team that eventually became the Yankees), but an injury sustained during the offseason while throwing a ball in the OWU gymnasium had impaired Rickey's throwing ability and ended his playing career prematurely.

Becomes Major League Executive

While playing professional baseball, Rickey continued to coach at the college level. He spent two years as football and baseball coach at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. In 1906, he was married to Jane Moulton.

In 1907, Rickey enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School, from which he earned a law degree in 1911 while also coaching the university's baseball team. In 1911, he set up a short-lived law practice in Boise, Ohio with two former OWU fraternity brothers, but the practice foundered, and Rickey soon returned to the University of Michigan, where he took up coaching again. His University of Michigan team included the future Hall of Famer George Sisler, whom Rickey would later sign to a contract with the St. Louis Browns.

Rickey was hired in 1912 by Browns owner Robert Lee Hedges (who had known Rickey from his playing days with the Browns) as a scout and then, shortly thereafter, in 1913, became an executive assistant in the Browns' front office. Rickey was also appointed field manager at the end of the 1913 season and served in that capacity for the next two seasons before being replaced by the Browns' new owner, Philip De Catesby Ball, who retained Rickey in a front office role. In 1917, Rickey accepted a higher-paying job as president of the Browns' national league counterparts, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Browns' owner, Ball, objected to Rickey's departure and undertook legal action in an unsuccessful attempt to enforce provisions of Rickey's contract with the Browns. Rickey volunteered to serve in the First World War, was commissioned a major, and served in France during 1918 with ballplayers such as Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson in the Army's Chemical Warfare Unit.

Develops Farm System

Rickey served for twenty-six years as an executive of the Cardinals, and he was also the team's field manager for over six seasons during this period. In 1922, a controlling interest in the Cardinals was purchased by a wealthy St. Louis businessman, Sam Breadon. Although Breadon and Rickey were temperamental opposites, they combined to create one of baseball's most successful franchises. The heart of the Cardinals operation was the much maligned but ultimately successful "farm system" (at first called by its detractors "chain store" or "chain gang" baseball), which was copied in due course by every major league team. Although the idea of a farm system was not entirely new, Rickey almost single-handedly put it into execution and brought it to fruition. By forging working agreements with minor league clubs at various levels, Rickey could develop talent without having to worry that the owner of a rival team would outbid him for a player (as had happened in earlier days, when minor league owners made it a practice to sell their marquee players to the highest bidder).

Signs Robinson

In October 1942, in the midst of a deteriorating relationship with Breadon, Rickey resigned from the Cardinals and shortly thereafter was named general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The stands at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, where the Cardinals played, were segregated, but in New York City, the chances for successfully integrating a major league team seemed much better. In 1943, while reporting to the Dodgers board of directors on his plan to set up a mass scouting system, Rickey mentioned that he "might include a Negro player or two"; the idea met with tacit approval. Rickey then engaged his scouts in a mission to find the "right man" to break baseball's color line. Rickey announced publicly in 1945 that he intended to establish a new Negro league called the United States League, which would include a Brooklyn franchise called the Brown Dodgers. Rickey then had Dodger scouts intensively scout players in the existing Negro Leagues, including Robinson, who were presumably being scouted to play for the Brown Dodgers. The new Negro league team was actually a smokescreen, Rickey later conceded, invented as a ruse to mask his real intentions.


1881Born December 20 in Little California (later renamed Stockdale), Ohio
1901Enrolls at Ohio Wesleyan University
1903Becomes baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan. Plays minor league baseball during summer at Terre Haute, Indiana and Le Mars, Iowa
1904Earns B.Litt. from Ohio Wesleyan
1904-05Plays for Dallas of Texas League. Signs contact with Cincinnati Reds; dismissed for refusing to play Sundays. Contract returned to Dallas. Traded to Chicago White Sox and, subsequently, to St. Louis Browns. Plays part of 1905 season with Browns
1904-06Coaches football and baseball at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, plus teaching
1906Earns B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan. Marries Jane Moulton in June. Plays 65 games for Browns and has his best year as a player, batting .284, third highest on team. Sold to New York Highlanders in December
1907Plays 52 games for Highlanders. On June 28, Washington Nationals (later known as Senators) steal a record 13 bases on Highlanders catcher Rickey (who had been pressed into service despite a bad shoulder), setting a record. Enters law school at University of Michigan in fall
1909Diagnosed with tuberculosis; spends time at sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York
1910-13Coaches baseball at University of Michigan. Earns J.D. degree in 1911
1913-16Serves in executive capacity for St. Louis Browns, with responsibility for acquiring players and making trades. Also serves as team's field manager from September 1913 to end of 1915 season
1916Hired as president by St. Louis Cardinals
1918Serves in Chemical Warfare Unit of U.S. Army
1919Becomes field manager of Cardinals (retaining title of president)
1920Sam Breadon buys a controlling interest in Cardinals, takes over as president, and demotes Rickey to vice-president
1925Rogers Hornsby is named player-manager of Cardinals, replacing Rickey, who remains as vice-president and business manager
1942Resigns as Cardinals GM and becomes president of Brooklyn Dodgers
1944-45Rickey and associates Walter O'Malley and John Smith acquire controlling interest in Dodgers
1945Rickey announces plan (later acknowledged to be a ruse to obscure his real intentions) to form Brown Dodgers team as Brooklyn's entry in proposed new Black United States Baseball League
1945Signs Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson to minor league contract
1947Announces that Dodgers have purchased Robinson's contract from Montreal farm team
1950Resigns as president of Dodgers. Named executive vice-president and general manager of Pittsburgh Pirates
1955Steps down as Pirates GM and moves into advisory role with team
1959Resigns as CEO of Pirates and becomes president of proposed Continental League (which disbands in 1960 without playing a game)
1962Rejoins Cardinals as senior consultant for player development
1964Fired from consulting job with Cardinals
1965Collapses on November 13 while giving speech in Columbia, Missouri and dies on December 9

On August 18, 1945, Rickey met with Robinson, who had been scouted by a Dodger scout, Clyde Sukeforth, and was immediately impressed with Robinson's intelligence, character, and demeanor. Rickey delivered to Robinson an impassioned discourse on the abuse Robinson would face as baseball's first black player and why he believed Robinson had to take the abuse without retaliation. "You will symbolize a crucial cause," Rickey said. "One incident, just one incident, can set it back twenty years. I'm looking for a ballplayer with enough guts not to fight back." On October 23, 1945, Rickey signed Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers' minor league affiliate in Montreal. On April 10, 1947, he made the epochal announcement that Robinson, after an outstanding year at Montreal, was being promoted to the Dodgers roster.

Post-Dodger Years

Rickey's tenure with the Dodgers lasted until 1950, when he was forced out by a fellow owner, Walter O'Malley, who became the team's president (and who ultimately moved the team to Los Angeles, earning O'Malley the enmity of Brooklyn fans). One month after leaving the Dodgers, Rickey became the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a second division club with whom he was less successful (although he did acquire players such as Roberto Clemente who provided a foundation for the Pirates' later success). Rickey stepped down as Pirates general manager in 1955 and remained in an advisory role with the team until 1959. He was then named president of a proposed new third league in Major League baseball, the Continental League. The Continental League never became a reality. But it was a key factor in spurring the expansion of major league baseball into two 10-team leagues.

On July 23, 1962, Rickey attended Jackie Robinson's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Rickey himself was elected to the Hall in 1967 by a unanimous vote of the Committee on Baseball Veterans. He is one of twenty-three men elected to the Hall of Fame as "executives" or "pioneers," and one of only four inductees in that category whose primary role was serving in a day-to-day executive capacity as general manager. His Hall of Fame plaque sums up his contribution to baseball integration and Civil Rights simply and matterof-factly by stating, "BROUGHT JACKIE ROBINSON TO BROOKLYN IN 1947."

Rickey's Legacy

Rickey was a genuine innovator who had a good bit of the college professor in him. His chief innovation, of course, was the farm system concept, which enabled teams like the Cardinals to compete against teams bankrolled by deeper-pocketed owners. Rickey was continually coming up with newfangled ideas, such as sliding pits, "pitching strings," and batting tees; he hired the first statistician in baseball (the Dodgers' Allan Roth) and used mathematical formulas to predict a team's success in offensive and defensive categories (and to question some commonly held assumptions about whether factors such as strikeouts are a reliable predictor of a team's ability to prevent runs). Rickey was interested in his players' moral welfare, and he always made it a point to inquire about a boy's character and family circumstances before deciding whether to sign him. He often spoke before the YMCA and other civic groups and was an early sponsor and supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Sports, Rickey believed, exemplified the moral percepts that make American great and that help to mold individual character.

Rickey had a genuine aesthetic appreciation of baseball and an almost evangelical faith in its place in American life. He was motivated by two guiding principles in challenging baseball's pre-World War II apartheid policy:a fundamental respect for democratic principles and "fair play"; and a religious conviction that it was not only the right time to break baseball's color line but was the right thing to do.

Baseball: An Illustrated History

In the spring of 1903, Ohio Wesleyan was scheduled to play Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana. Rickey's star was the first baseman, Charles "Tommy" Thomas, an African American equally skilled at baseball and football.

[When] Rickey and his team filed into the lobby of the Oliver Hotel at South Bend, the clerk told Rickey that while he and the rest of the team were welcome, Thomas was not. Thomas, humiliated, suggested that he just quietly return to Ohio Wesleyan and forget about playing.

Rickey wouldn't hear of it; he took Thomas to his own room. When the manager protested, Rickey threatened to take his whole team elsewhere if he didn't cooperate. The manager backed down.

Many years later, Rickey remembered what happened after he sent for the team captain to come to his room and talk over strategy for the big game: "Tommy stood in the corner, tense and brooding and in silence. I asked him to sit on a chair and relax. Instead, he sat on the edge of the cot, his huge shoulders hunched and his hands clasped between his knees. I tried to talk to the captain, but I couldn't take my gaze from Tommy. Tears welled, spilled down his black face. Then his shoulders heaved convulsively, and he rubbed one great hand over the other with all the power of his body, muttering, 'Black skin, black skin. If I could only make 'em white.' He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction."

Rickey did his best to reassure Thomas, but "whatever mark that incident left on Charles Thomas, it was no more indelible than the impression made on me." The memory never left him and the conviction slowly grew that he would someday try to see to it that such things never happened again.

Source: Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.


(With Robert Riger) The American Diamond: A Documentary of the Game of Baseball, Simon & Schuster, 1965.



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Sketch by Roger W. Smith

Awards and Accomplishments

1967Elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Wesley Branch Rickey

views updated May 29 2018

Wesley Branch Rickey

Wesley Branch Rickey (1881-1965) was an innovative baseball executive who created baseball's farm system and integrated organized baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson in 1946.

Branch Rickey was born on December 20, 1881, in Stockdale, Ohio, and was raised in nearby Lucasville. Reared on his father's farm with a strict religious upbringing, young Branch excelled in academics and athletics. At the age of 19 Rickey enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University, paying his way by playing semi-professional baseball and football and later coaching both sports. Upon graduation in 1904 he joined the Dallas baseball team in the Texas League. By the season's end the Cincinnati Reds of the National League purchased his contract, only to drop him from the squad when Rickey refused to play on Sundays. Over the next three years Rickey appeared as a catcher for the St. Louis Browns and for the New York Yankees, compiling a modest .239 life-time batting average.

Coaching and Managing

His playing career at an end, Rickey entered law school at the University of Michigan, once again financing his education by coaching. His legal career, however, proved short and unsuccessful. In 1912 St. Louis Browns owner Robert Hedges rescued Rickey from his failing Idaho law practice by offering him a position as his personal assistant. Two years later Rickey became the field manager of the team, and his emphasis on fundamentals and experimental training methods won him a reputation as a "Professor of Baseball." In 1917 Rickey transferred his allegiance to the crosstown St. Louis Cardinals, where he served as field manager until 1925 and as general manager from 1925 until 1942.

With the Cardinals Rickey perfected the "farm system," his first major contribution to the baseball industry. This ingenious scheme allowed a major league club to control a chain of minor league franchises through which it could develop young players before promoting the best to the parent team. The farm system allowed Rickey to assemble championship squads for the Cardinals as well as surplus players who were sold profitably to other teams. Under his leadership the Cardinals emerged as the most successful franchise in the National League.

Brooklyn Dodgers

In 1942, following a rift with Cardinal owner Samuel Breadon, Rickey became the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey's early attempts to rebuild the Brooklyn club by trading and selling older stars and creating a minor league chain like that of St. Louis met with derision from cynical Dodger fans and reporters. Rickey's intense moralism and sermonlike speeches led sportswriters to dub him the "Deacon" or the "Mahatma" (after Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi), and his office became known as the "Cave of the Winds." But by 1946 Rickey, now a part owner of the Dodgers, had once again constructed a pennant-contending team and his popularity soared.

Meanwhile, Rickey had embarked on a daring scheme to assure Dodger dominance in the post-World War II years. Since the late 1880s organized baseball had barred African Americans from participation. Rickey, who believed that segregation was immoral, correctly recognized that political pressures would soon bring about the integration of baseball and perceived that the first owner to tap this new source of players would benefit both in the standings and at the box office. In 1945, under the guise of creating a new Negro League, the Dodger organization secretly began scouting African American players. After carefully assessing the skills and background of dozens of players, Rickey chose Jackie Robinson, a former collegiate football star, to become the first African American major leaguer in the 20th century.

Rickey moved slowly and cautiously in bringing Robinson to the Dodgers. He studied the work of sociologists like Frank Tannenbaum and Dan Dodson and met with leaders of the African American community urging restraint in the enthusiasm of African American fans. He sent Robinson first to play for the Dodgers' top farm team, the Montreal Royals, in 1946 and started other talented African American players at lower levels of the Dodger minor leagues. Rickey's elaborate planning may have been unnecessary, but it reflected both his own complex personality and the racial perceptions of the era.

The choice of Robinson as his standard bearer proved an inspired one. Despite tremendous pressures and numerous instances of discrimination, Robinson led the International League in batting in 1946. The following year Rickey put down a rebellion among several Dodger players seeking to prevent Robinson's promotion and installed the African American athlete as the team's first baseman. Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and was named Rookie of the Year. His presence attracted record numbers of fans in every National League city. Over the next nine years Robinson established himself as one of the outstanding stars in baseball history, and the Dodgers, in large part due to Robinson and other African American players, became the dominant team in the National League.

In the aftermath of the Robinson experience Rickey became a prominent spokesman on behalf of civil rights. In the late 1940s he challenged Jim Crow laws by scheduling Dodger exhibitions throughout the South, forcing local officials to integrate their facilities or lose a sell-out crowd. In 1950 Rickey lost control of the Dodgers to Walter O'Malley and left the club. In subsequent years he worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals, but he was never able to recreate his earlier successes. In November 1965 he collapsed in Columbia, Missouri, while speaking on personal courage. He never regained consciousness and died on December 9, 1965.

Further Reading

The best biography of Branch Rickey is Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action (1957). Other biographies include David Lipman, Mr. Baseball: The Story of Branch Rickey (1966) and Murray Polner, Branch Rickey (1982). See also Branch Rickey, The American Diamond (1965). For accounts of the integration of baseball see Jules Tygiel, Base-ball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983) and Carl T. Rowan and Jackie Robinson, Wait Till Next Year: The Life of Jackie Robinson (1960).

Additional Sources

Frommer, Harvey, Rickey and Robinson: the men who broke baseball's color barrier, New York: MacMillan; London: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1982. □

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