On this date in 1881, one of the most impactful men in the 20th century and baseball history was born: Branch Rickey. Most Americans know him as the man who signed Jackie Robinson, thereby integrating Major League Baseball and providing an essential catalyst for the civil rights movement that was finding momentum far too slowly . This is true, and monumentally important. However, to know him by only this event is missing a larger and more interesting picture. As with the stories of so many influencers throughout history, the first hundred words are nice, but it takes many more to truly understand the impact of this great innovator.
On December 20, 1881, Wesley Branch Rickey was born on a farm in Ohio to parents who struggled to make ends meet, and received his education in a one room school house. As a young man he played both professional baseball and football without having a lot of success in either. He was a catcher in baseball who struggled to hit and didn’t throw well at all. In fact, one team stole 13 bases against him in a game, setting a professional baseball record that stands 100 years later. In 1909, he left the playing field desiring to become the head baseball coach at the University of Michigan while earning a law degree at the same time. He was reluctantly granted the job after contacting every alumnus of the school he knew to write letters to the athletic director on his behalf. The A.D. was skeptical that Rickey could take on the challenges both law school and baseball coaching at the same time. They made an agreement that he would be prepared every day for law school and ready to answer each question, or he would be fired. Not only did he do that, in 1911 he graduated at the top of his class. He would then serve a short brief stint as field manager of the St. Louis Browns before beginning a 25 year run with the St. Louis Cardinals in the roles of field manager, team president, and general manager.
Branch Rickey as manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1914
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Now for some more interesting things that you probably didn’t know:
Rickey served in World War One and commanded over hall of famers Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.
When America joined the “Great War” in 1917, like millions of other Americans, Rickey volunteered for service. Too old to see action on the front lines, he joined the Chemical Warfare Service in France. There he launched gas attacks against enemy trench lines and set smoke screens. Christy Mathewson, one of the greatest pitchers to play the game, and Ty Cobb, one of the greatest hitters of all time, served under him. It was during a simulation training exercise that Cobb and Mathewson failed to put on their gas masks on time, which led Mathewson to develop tuberculosis from which he would die in 1925.
Branch Rickey is credited as the creator of the minor league system used in baseball to this day.
For much of the first half century of major league baseball, the big league teams would simply purchase the contracts of players from the abundance of minor league teams throughout the country. This was a hefty advantage for the “rich” teams, with the financial means to outspend the others on baseball’s top prospects. While serving as general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, he decided the Cardinals would buy stock in minor league teams thereby essentially controlling how they operated and developed players. He had the vision that it would be cheaper and more efficient for the organization to cultivate and develop their own players with their “farm” system. He began this system in the early 1920’s, and it definitely paid off as the Cardinals won their first world series in 1926, then National League Pennants in 1928, 1930, 1941, and 1942 as well as several more titles when Rickey left the Cardinals following the 1942 season.
Branch Rickey checks over the 18 minor league teams of the Cardinals in 1942.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Branch Rickey is credited with bringing the batting helmet to major league baseball.
Doesn’t it look ridiculous to see old footage of baseball players in the batter’s box while wearing only the same standard cloth hat that they wore while playing defense? When the modern batting helmet was invented, players refused to wear them. They said they were uncomfortable and made them look like “sissies!” It was in 1952, after several players had been killed or seriously injured after being struck in the head by baseballs when Rickey, serving as general manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates ordered everyone in the organization to wear the modern version of the batting helmet. The next year, the Brooklyn Dodgers followed suit. In 1956, the National League passed a rule stating that all batters had to wear protective headgear (either a helmet or insert), and in 1958 the American League did the same. In 1970, major league baseball passed a rule stating that every batter had to wear a helmet, but veterans could still go with the insert if they wanted. (Why on earth they would…..I’ll never understand.)
Think about how many lives were saved and serious injuries avoided because of the batting helmet!
Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson: Changing baseball and America
When Branch Rickey was a college baseball player at Ohio Wesleyan University, he was witness to an incident that would stay with him his entire life. He had one African American teammate, Charles Thomas. When the team went to play a series against Notre Dame, Thomas was denied entry into the hotel where the team was staying. Thomas looked at Rickey with tears in his eyes and said, “If I could rub this color off of me, I’d be as good as any man..” This stayed with Rickey his entire life.
Branch Rickey became general manager of the Dodgers in 1942, while also acquiring 25 percent stock of the team. He was determined that the Dodgers would be the first to break the color barrier. He signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945 not because he was the best African American player in baseball at the time, but because he was a man “who had the courage to not fight back.” Most of us are fully aware of the brutal racism that Robinson endured throughout his playing career both on and off the field. We also realize what an important step this was not only for baseball, but for breaking down the color barriers of America. When Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Dodgers in 1947, we all got better. This would not have happened without the courage of Branch Rickey.
Jackie Robinson signing his professional baseball contract with Branch Rickey
Photo Credit: Newsday
So today, on the 137th anniversary of his birth, let us pause to give thanks for the life and legacy of Mr. Wesley Branch Rickey. He was a man with a unique vision, and the ability to follow through on the ideas which led us all to a better place. Without question, signing Jackie Robinson was the most significant thing he did, but far from the only one.
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