It is just a backyard game . . . Right?

Branch Rickey

Branch Rickey often said, “Never surrender opportunity for security.” It was a motto that
would define a career spanning nearly sixty years. Known as an inscrutable dealer who
could usually talk his way into what he wanted, Rickey’s innovative approaches to
improving the game of baseball were often controversial and met with resistance. The
cigar-chomping Rickey, nicknamed “the Mahatma”, revolutionized scouting and training
practices and engineered the most important social change in baseball, the breaking
down of the color barrier.

Wesley Branch Rickey was born on December 20, 1881. He was raised in the rural
environment of southern Ohio. Despite attending a one-room school house, Rickey
excelled at academics and snatched up educational opportunities whenever he could. His
family was devout fundamental Methodists. Religion played a large role in shaping
Rickey’s life philosophies and ingrained a deep sense of right and wrong into the young
man. After spending two years as a country school teacher, Rickey enrolled at Ohio
Wesleyan University. He became a catcher for the university team but, after taking a
paid summer position for a local baseball team, Rickey lost his university athletic
eligibility status and could not return to being an active player. He signed on instead as
baseball coach. There was a black player on the university team who often suffered from
discriminatory treatment while traveling and playing. Rickey took notice and the
impression of the injustice stayed with him throughout his lifetime.

Rickey’s early baseball career started off with a two year stint for a Class B team out of
Indiana. He was then signed by the Cincinnati Reds organization. His religious upbringing
became a deterrent to his game, as Rickey refused to play on Sundays. It was a promise
he had made to his mother before beginning his career as a player. Rickey was fired
because of this and never played a single game with the Reds. The St. Louis Browns
decided to pick him up in 1905 and Rickey spent two years in the position of catcher. He
was then traded to the New York Highlanders in 1907, but Rickey never became a key
contributor. His performance at a major league level was not quite good enough and
Rickey struggled with both batting and fielding. The only statistical record that Rickey
holds as a player in the history books is for allowing 13 stolen bases in one game.
Plagued with an arm injury and continuous performance issues, Rickey hung up his
player uniform.

Baseball was not done with him however. After retiring form the Highlanders in 1907,
Rickey pursued his law degree at University of Michigan. He coached the university team
at this time, one which included a young George Sisler. In 1912, Rickey took a position
as a scout for the St. Louis Browns and became a front office executive in 1913. He
signed on former teammate and future Hall of Famer George Sisler and served as a field
manager for two years. Rickey’s baseball ventures took a hiatus as World War 1 gripped
the nation. Rickey joined the forces and served as a chemical engineer in France. After
the war, Rickey returned to St. Louis in 1919, becoming the president and manager for
the Cardinals. He was replaced as manager by Roger Hornsby in 1925, a year shy of the
Cardinals’ first World Series win in 1926.

Rickey continued on as an executive for the Cardinals’ organization for the nearly twenty
years. It was during this time that he began a new method for training major league
players. Rickey began acquiring minor league teams and affiliating them with the
Cardinals organization. These teams provided a training ground for up and coming
players and what is known as the farming system began to take hold. Having invested
interests in these teams, along with a solid scouting staff, it allowed the Cardinals to
develop some of the best players of that era. The St. Louis Cardinals became extremely
successful as a result of this and alarmed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain
Landis. Landis felt that the system would create a monopoly of talent and contractual
control. He tried to crush the system, even calling for the release of nearly 100 Cardinal
players. The success of the farming system was too big to ignore, and other teams
began developing their own minor league teams, following Rickey’s plan. The minor
league system plays a crucial role in today’s game, allowing teams to secure potential
talent and providing players with professional training in preparation for the major
league.

Rickey’s influence in developing the St. Louis Cardinals had tangible results. The team
won the National League pennant five times and became World Series champions three
times within an eight year span from 1926 to 1934. The Cardinals re-surged once again
in 1942, beating the Yankees in five games during the World Series. It was to be
Rickey’s last season with the Cardinals. Sam Beardon, president of the Cardinals, and
Rickey had always been known for butting heads. Frequent disagreements had led to a
strained relationship, and when Rickey was offered the general manager position and an
opportunity to became part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he accepted. He went on to
develop a solid farming system for the Dodgers, aggressively seeking out talented young
players. He developed the first full time spring training facility in Veros Beach, Florida
and his implementation of batting helmets, cages and pitching machines became a
mainstay for developing solid skills. Rickey had transformed the minor league system,
and as he began his time with the Dodgers, a new revolution was taking shape in his
head.

Racial discrimination had always been a point of contention with Rickey. From the unfair
treatment of his college teammate, to the barring of black fans in the Cardinal
grandstand, Rickey felt these practices unjust. The Negro League was a thriving business
and boasted many talented players. Because of an unwritten code in the game, no black
player had ever played with a nationally recognized major league team. Segregation had
been a main stay in baseball, both due to the societal factors as well as economic ones.
Stadium owners would rent their venues out to the Negro League while on the road and
major league teams profited from the transactions. The social movement for equal rights
was still in the early stages and lines of color had not been crossed. Rickey was planning
on changing that.

He saw that the talent found in the Negro lead could provide a huge boost to major
league teams. He also realized that if he could snag those players up early, he would be
far ahead of other teams in utilizing that talent. Rickey started scouting in hopes of
finding the perfect player, one that could stand up to taunts and discrimination, as well
as one that would prove his merit on the field regardless of color. After an intense
search, Rickey found the one. In the fall of 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the
Dodgers’ AAA team, the Montreal Royals. The impact on the game was enormous.
Robinson went on to join the Dodgers as a professional player and was named the first
ever Rookie of the Year in 1947. His talent and personality made him a fan favorite.
Baseball became one of the first national organizations, athletic or otherwise, to
transcend color. The signing of Jackie Robinson bolstered the equal rights movement and
baseball went on to accept and recognize the talent of the black players. Even owners
who disagreed with the move were forced to follow in Rickey’s footsteps in order to
remain competitive.

Rickey’s contract with the Dodgers expired in 1950. Plagued by similar managerial
disagreements as he had experienced in St. Louis, Rickey sold his share in the club and
became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he served as chairman until
1959. Rickey’s influence registered on the club and changes made during his tenure led
the Pirates to their first world championship in 1960, one year after Rickey had retired.
The aging Rickey continued to bring innovative ideas to the game and, in 1960, was
appointed president of the Continental League. Developed to rival the National and
American leagues and bring more teams to the majors, this venture proved to have less
success than other experiments promoted by Rickey in the past. The new league was
promptly forced into dissolving by the other two divisions. The formation and
subsequential disbanding of the Continental League had far-reaching consequences
however. The American and National Leagues saw the need for expansion, both
undergoing transformations in divisions and number of teams that were playing, shaping
divisions much in the same way as it is seen in today’s game.

Branch Rickey is the perfect example of the myriad of forces that define and shape the
game away from the field. As a player, his performance was bleak and there have been
many, many players to step onto the field that supersede him in talent. But rarely has
there been as an innovative and successful of a businessman to shape the game. His
outside of the box thinking set new standards, opening up doors that were once closed
and integrating a solid, effective minor league system. These achievements were
officially recognized when Rickey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967, and an
annual award in his name is given to the major league player who best exemplifies
humanitarian effort and community involvement. Branch Rickey died in 1965 after
collapsing during his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. But his plaque in
Cooperstown will hang always, recognizing a man who pioneered so many changes to
the game.

 

 

Branch Rickey – Hall of Fame Biography

Branch Rickey – SABR Biography

Branch Rickey – Baseball Reference Page

By Tom Hannon

Builder of two Wiffle Ball Fields, The Ball Park At Lake Gardner and Little Ebbets Field. Author of a book of backyard ball and Little Ebbets Field.

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