About Wesley Branch Rickey
Wesley Branch Rickey (December 20, 1881 – December 9, 1965) was an innovative Major League Baseball executive elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. He was known for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing African American player Jackie Robinson, for drafting the first Hispanic/Black Hispanic superstar, Roberto Clemente, for creating the framework for the modern minor league farm system, and for introducing the batting helmet.
Rickey's many achievements and deep Christian faith earned him the nickname "the Mahātmā."
Rickey was born in Stockdale, Ohio, USA, the son of Jacob Frank Rickey and Emily Brown Rickey. He was a catcher on the baseball team at Ohio Wesleyan University and, in 1903, signed a contract with Terre Haute, Indiana of the Class B Central League, making his professional debut on June 20. Rickey was assigned to Le Mars, Iowa of the Class D Iowa-South Dakota League. Later, he spent two seasons in the major leagues, debuting as a St. Louis Brown in 1905. Sold to the New York Highlanders in 1907, Rickey could neither hit nor field while with the club, and his batting average dropped below .200. One opposing team stole 13 bases while Rickey was behind the plate, setting a record which still stands a century later. Rickey also injured his throwing arm and retired as a player after just one year. (During this period, Rickey also spent two seasons—1904 and 1905—coaching baseball and football and teaching at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.)
For his B.A., he attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. He received his LL.B. from the University of Michigan, where he worked as the baseball coach while going to school.
He returned to the big leagues in 1913, as a front office executive with the Browns. He was responsible for signing young George Sisler. Rickey became the team's manager for the final 12 games of the season, and managed the team for two more full seasons. But the Browns finished under .500 both years.
Rickey served as an officer in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. He commanded a chemical training unit that included Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. Rickey served in the 1st Gas Regiment during the war. He spent over four months as a member of the Chemical Warfare Service.
He then returned to St. Louis in 1919, but clashed with new Browns owner Phil Ball and jumped to the crosstown Cardinals, to become team president and manager. In 1920, Rickey gave up the team presidency to the Cards' new majority owner, Sam Breadon. He then led the Cardinals on the field for another five seasons, before his firing early in the 1925 season.
His 6+ years as a manager were relatively mediocre, although the team posted winning records from 1921–23 and Rickey wisely invested in several minor league baseball clubs, using them to develop future talent for the Cardinals major league roster. He was 43 years old, had been a player, manager and executive in the Major Leagues and had shown no indication whatsoever that he would ever deserve to belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But even though he was not the first general manager in Major League Baseball history — his title was business manager — Rickey (as inventor of the farm system) would come to embody the position of the baseball operations executive who mastered scouting, player acquisition and development and business affairs — the definition of the modern GM.
Rogers Hornsby replaced Rickey to become a player-manager, and in 1926, his first full year as manager, he led the Cardinals to their first World Series championship.
Farm system and other innovations
By 1930, Rickey's Cardinals, known as the "Gashouse Gang", were the class of the National League. They won 101 games in 1931 and won the World Series in seven games. The star of the Series that year was rookie Pepper Martin, one of the first Cardinal stars that came from Branch's minor league system. Soon, other minor league graduates joined the team, among them future hall of famers Dizzy Dean and Joe Medwick, and Dean's brother Paul "Daffy" Dean. The Deans and Medwick were integral parts of the 1934 Cardinals, who won the franchise's third World Series title.
Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis was concerned that Rickey's minor league system was going to ruin the game of baseball by destroying most existing minor league teams, and he twice released over 70 Cardinal minor leaguers in attempts to stop what he perceived to be a cover-up. Despite Judge Landis' best efforts, however, Rickey's minor league system stayed in existence, and similar systems were adopted by every major league team within a few years. Arguably, the farm system saved the minor leagues, by keeping them necessary after the television age began and minor league attendance figures declined.
Rickey continued to develop the Cardinals up until the early 1940s. In his final year at St. Louis, 1942, the Cardinals had their best season in franchise history, winning 106 games and the World Series title. The team was led by a new crop of players developed by the Cardinals, two of whom, Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial, became Hall of Famers; and several others, among them future MVP Marty Marion, who were among the best at their position during their eras. Even their manager Billy Southworth was a product of their farm system.
Rickey was a good friend of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail, himself a sound baseball man. MacPhail enlisted in the army to serve in World War II after the 1942 season, and the Dodgers hired Branch Rickey to replace him as President and GM, ending a tenure of over two decades with the Cardinals.
Branch continued being an innovator in his time with Brooklyn. He was responsible for the first full time spring training facility, in Vero Beach, Florida, and encouraged the use of now-commonplace tools such as the batting cage, pitching machines, and batting helmets. He also pioneered the use of statistical analysis in baseball (what is now known as sabermetrics), when he hired statistician Allan Roth as a full-time analyst for the Dodgers in 1947. After viewing Roth's evidence, Rickey promoted the idea that on-base percentage was a more important hitting statistic than batting average. While working under Rickey, Roth was also the first person to provide statistical evidence that platoon effects were real and quantifiable.
Breaking the color barrier
Rickey's most memorable act with the Dodgers involved signing Jackie Robinson, thus breaking baseball's color barrier, which had been an unwritten rule since the 1880s. This policy had continued under a succession of baseball leaders, including Landis, who was openly opposed to integrating Major League Baseball for what he regarded as legitimate reasons. Landis died in 1944, but Rickey had already set the process in motion, having sought (and gained) approval from the Dodgers Board of Directors in 1943 to begin the search for "the right man".
On August 28, 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. On October 23, 1945, it was announced that Robinson would join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' International League affiliate, for the 1946 season. He would end up as the league's batting champion, and led the Royals to a dominant league championship. There was no statute officially banning the blacks from baseball, only a universally-recognized unwritten rule which no club owner was prepared to break. The club owners imitated the values and beliefs of the everyday white man. Their hostility towards blacks may seem surprising, bearing in mind the celebrated role in American sports of pre-Second-World-War black athletes such as Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens on the track. The difference is baseball players are playing for teams, rather than as individual competitors. Branch Rickey took it upon himself to break the color barrier into major league baseball.
Branch Rickey opened the door to the major leagues for Jackie Robinson (with potential for other black athletes to follow). "He (Mr. Rickey) knew I would have terrible problems and wanted me to know the extent of them before I agreed to play." At the start of the 1947 major league baseball season, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Jackie was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers major league baseball team, with the help of Mr. Rickey.
Branch Rickey knew that Jackie would face racism and discrimination. Rickey made it clear in their momentous first meeting that he anticipated wide-scale resistance both inside and outside baseball to opening its doors to Negroes. As predicted by Rickey, right from the start, Jackie Robinson faced obstacles among his teammates and other teams' players. However harsh the white people were towards Jackie, he could not retaliate. Jackie had agreed with Mr. Rickey not to lose his temper and jeopardize the chances of all the blacks who would follow him if he could help break down the barriers.
Red Barber recounted in Ken Burns's Baseball Documentary that Rickey's determination to desegregate Major League Baseball was born out of a combination of idealism and astute business sense. The idealism was at least partially rooted in an incident involving a team for which Rickey worked early on. An African-American player, Charles Thomas, was extremely upset at being refused accommodation at the hotel where the team stayed because of his race. Rickey never forgot the incident and later said "I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball." The business element was based on the fact that the Negro Leagues had numerous star athletes, and logically, the first Major League team to hire them would get first pick of the players at a reasonable price. At the time, Mexican brewery czar Jorge Pasquel was raiding the US for black talent (e.g., Satchel Paige), as well as disgruntled white players, for the Mexican League with the idea of creating an integrated league that could compete on a talent level with the US major leagues.
Amid much fanfare, Jackie debuted, and turned out to be a fantastic success. Robinson was baseball's first rookie of the year, and while he was often jeered by opposing baseball players, managers, and fans, he became extremely popular with the American public. His success became the crowning achievement of Rickey's illustrious career. His Dodgers would make the World Series that year, losing in seven games to the New York Yankees. But Rickey's vision and action had set the stage for the previously mediocre Dodgers to be contenders for decades to come. And it opened the door for other innovative leaders like Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians, who integrated the American League soon thereafter.
In 1950, there were four owners of the Dodgers, each with one quarter of the franchise. When one of the four died, Walter O'Malley took control of that quarter. Also in 1950, Branch Rickey's contract as Dodger president expired, and Walter O'Malley decided that were Rickey to retain the job, almost all of Rickey's power would be gone; for example, he would no longer take a percentage of every franchise sale; Rickey declined a new contract as President. Then, in order to be a majority owner, O'Malley offered to buy Rickey's portion. Seeing no reason to hold on to the club, Rickey decided to comply, however in a final act of retaliation against O'Malley, Rickey instead offered the club percentage to a friend for a million dollars. His chances at complete franchise control at risk, O'Malley was forced to offer more money, and Rickey finally sold his portion for $1,050,000. After leaving the Dodgers, Rickey was offered the position of general manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Health problems forced Branch Rickey to retire in 1955, however his contributions would help lead to a World Championship for Pittsburgh in 1960.
Rickey became a public speaker in his later years. He collapsed in the middle of a speech in Columbia, Missouri as he was being elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. About to relate an illustration from the Bible, Rickey murmured he could not continue, collapsed and never spoke again. He died a month later on December 9, 1965.
In addition to Rickey's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a contributor in 1967, in 1997 he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and in 2009 he was elected the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1992, the Rotary Club of Denver created the Branch Rickey Award, which is given annually to a Major League Baseball player in recognition of exceptional community service.
In Ohio, a portion of U.S. Route 23 (commencing at the boundary of Franklin and Delaware counties at Lazelle Road and extending northward to the City of Branch Rickey Park". It has been the home of the Portsmouth High School Trojans for many years.
Branch Rickey is attributed with the famous quotation: "Luck is the residue of opportunity and design." (Quoted by Larry King 7/12/2006.), although 17th century writer John Milton initially coined the phrase. His descendants also became involved in baseball: his son, Branch Jr., who died four years before his father, and Branch Rickey III, currently president of the Pacific Coast League.
Rickey was a relative of Beth Rickey, the Louisiana political activist who opposed the candidacy of David Duke for governor.