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Branch Rickey
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Wesley Branch Rickey: "The Mahatma"

Branch Rickey

     After a mediocre , 4-year career as a St. Louis Cardinal (.239 avg, 3 HR in 343 at-bats), Branch Rickey spent half a century in the front office as baseball's greatest visionary executive.  With the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and 1930s, Rickey invented the modern farm system, promoting a new way of training and developing players.  Later with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he pioneered the use of baseball statistics.  In 1945, he became the first owner to break baseball's color line when he signed Jackie Robinson, who became the modern major leagues' first African-American player.

     The honorific "The Mahatma" combined respect for Rickey's baseball wisdom with amusement at his pontifical manner and florid speech, which gave him the air of a con man playing a parson.  He could have been either, but essentially he was that traditional American type, the sharp trader.

 

     The basis of his success was a nearly infallible eye for baseball talent.  Over and over again, he saw the potential in raw youth (George Sisler, Dizzy Dean), brought hidden qualities to light (Billy Cox, Preacher Roe), and calculated precisely the productive time left in a veteran (Dixie Walker, Joe Medwick).  Rickey discovered and nurtured such talent through an elaborate, network of 32 minor league clubs controlling a "chain gang" of some 600 players.  Their quality was so high that the parent club, the once-floundering Cardinals, became a National League power, and so numerous that at one time some 65 Cardinal graduates could be found playing in the majors.

     As the organization grew under Rickey's direction, he sustained it with a handpicked faculty of managers, coaches, and scouts to give the youngsters big-league polish.  It was a complete change of purpose and focus for the minor leagues, and it was fought by Commissioner Landis for its effect on the competitiveness and independence of minor league clubs.  In 1937 Landis released 91 Cardinal farmhands, who were property of St. Louis in a way that is now the norm, but seemed threatening to organized baseball at the time.  But the benefits for major league teams were obvious, and too tempting to ignore; within a decade, Rickey's idea had been universally adopted.

 

     Moving on to the Dodgers, who would become the Cardinals' challengers and successors, he created the spring-training complex at Vero Beach, where players by the hundreds could be instructed, evaluated, and assigned.  And he encouraged such innovations as batting cages, pitching machines, batting helmets, and a string outline of the strike zone rigged over home plate for pitchers working on control.  Rickey's all-seeing eye enhanced his knack for trades, for he always knew precisely the players he wanted and exactly the players he was prepared to give up.  Add to this his psychological ploys and circumlocutory argument, and his trading partners often departed shirtless, but persuaded he had done them a favor.

     His keen eye for talent also prompted the destruction of baseball's persistent discrimination against blacks.  However noble his motives may have been, he was undeniably the first beneficiary of the change: it certainly was a brave move to sign Jackie Robinson, breaking the silently-upheld color barrier that had existed since the 1880s.  But by exploiting the Negro Leagues as a new source of talent, Rickey built a dynasty that won the NL pennant seven times from 1947 through 1956.

 

     Since 19th-century star Cap Anson refused to appear with black pitcher Harry Stovey, blacks had been informally barred from the majors.  Near the end of WWII, Rickey assigned scouts to recruit for what he told them would be a Dodgers-owned Negro League team. He was really looking for the right ballplayer to break the color line.  Clyde Sukeforth found Robinson playing shortstop for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.

     In a meeting which has been portrayed and described many times since, Rickey confronted Robinson with the wide range of abuse he knew Robinson would face.  Robinson finally blew up, asking Rickey, "Do you want a player afraid to fight back?" Rickey replied that he wanted someone "with the guts not to fight back."  Robinson promised a passive response and kept his word, not an easy task for a man who had faced an army court martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus.

 

     Rickey was not much of a ballplayer himself, although he came to the Reds in 1904 well-recommended as a catcher.  A youthful vow to his mother would not allow him to suit up on Sundays, however, or even carry his gear to the depot if it was a travel day.  Manager Joe Kelley, a no-nonsense old Oriole, cut him before he ever caught a game.  The Browns and Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees) tried him as a backup catcher until an injured throwing arm ended his playing career.  At New York, he was behind the plate on a day Washington stole 13 bases.

     In 1959 Rickey launched an effort to form a third major league, the Continental League.  The majors reacted with alarm.  They could not confront the new venture directly without raising antitrust concerns, so they preempted the new league's prime franchises in the expansion of 1961-62, an expansion Rickey had long advocated.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967 by the Veterans Committee.

 

"Mr. Rickey always stressed the moral and spiritual discipline needed in life"

 Carl Erskine

Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.

 


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