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