Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial start of baseball’s stretch run as the contenders and would-be contenders vie for spots in Major League Baseball’s post-season play. This year’s pennant race comes on the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier when, in 1947, a front office mastermind with the Brooklyn Dodgers named Branch Rickey put America’s National Past-time at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in this country.
A new biography of the man who was dubbed by sportswriters "The Brain" and "The Mahatma" goes well beyond Rickey’s Dodger years, focusing a great deal on his time in Missouri with the St. Louis Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals. Lee Lowenfish, author of "Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman," (University of Nebraska Press), credits Rickey with revolutionizing the game through actions that both preceded and followed the Robinson signing.
Lowenfish is thorough in following Rickey’s journey from childhood in Ohio to coaching the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team to Rickey being signed as a catcher by the Cincinnati Reds to his leaving the Reds to become baseball and football coach at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania – where he also served as an instructor in Shakespeare, English, and freshman history. We also learn it wasn’t Rickey’s lack of ability on the diamond that forced this devout Christian to leave the Reds. It was his refusal to play baseball on the Sabbath. In fact, Rickey left the Reds without ever playing in a regular season game.
But Rickey did get a second chance to play Major League Baseball, with the St. Louis Browns, making his debut in June of 1905. In 1906, Rickey juggled his Browns’ duties with a new role he had taken on at his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan. Rickey had been hired as the school’s athletic director and coach of the baseball, football, and basketball teams. At this time, Rickey was settling down to married life with his childhood sweetheart, Jane Moulton. In 1907, Rickey was sent to the New York Highlanders, forerunner of the Yankees, but was hampered by pain in the shoulder of his throwing arm, and did not perform well. His playing career over, Rickey settled into the task of running Ohio Wesleyan’s athletic programs.
It was during this period that Rickey became involved with what was known as the Anti-Saloon League, an anti-alcohol Prohibition campaign. But the long days took a toll and Rickey became ill during the 1908 Christmas season, eventually being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He left Ohio Wesleyan and embarked on a period of recovery. By 1910, Rickey was well enough to enroll in law school at the University of Michigan, but still found the time to return to Ohio Wesleyan to coach the basketball team for one season. An opportunity to return to baseball came through an opening in Ann Arbor, with Rickey becoming the Michigan Wolverines’ baseball coach.
He had returned to baseball, in the college ranks, and would soon get his chance to get back into Major League Baseball, when he took on the task of scouting amateur and semiprofessional players in Michigan for the St. Louis Browns. This renewal of a relationship Rickey had had with Robert Hedges, owner of the Browns, led to an offer that would set in motion the Rickey era in the front offices of Major League Baseball. Rickey accepted a position as Hedges’ assistant and business manager with the St. Louis Browns. In time, Rickey would become field manager of the Browns, and remained in that post until being replaced following the sale of the team in 1916.
It was the parting comments of Browns’ owner Robert Hedges that would impact Rickey and perhaps inspire him to embark on what Lowenfish refers to as the first of three cases of Rickey revolutionizing the game of baseball. Hedges spoke of his concerns that baseball was endangered by, "The presence of so much money behind certain clubs." In 1917, Rickey became president of the St. Louis Cardinals and, from 1919 to1925, managed the club. It was in St. Louis, running the Cardinals, that Rickey found a novel way of transforming the Redbirds from cellar-dwellers to competitors. Necessity being the mother of invention, Rickey developed the farm system, the system that saw inexperienced, raw talent signed cheaply and groomed into players who could perform in the Big Leagues. At the peak of the Cardinals’ farm system in the 1930s, they would control more than 700 players and interests in more than 30 Minor League teams.
Success did come for the Rickey and the Cardinals, with the team’s first World Series appearance in 1926, a 4 games to 3 Fall Classic victory over the New York Yankees. The Cardinals won National League pennants again in 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, and 1942 – winning the World Series in 1931 against the Philadelphia Athletics, 1934 with the victory by the "Gas House Gang" over the Detroit Tigers, and in 1942 against the Yankees. 1942 would be Rickey’s finale with the Cardinals as he went out on top, heading to Brooklyn to take the reins of the Dodgers.
It was just a few short years later that Rickey would revolutionize the baseball world for the second time, according to Lowenfish, with what has become one of the significant events not only in baseball history, but in the history of American civil rights and justice. Rickey signed Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, who had played a season with the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs, to a contract to play Major League Baseball. Robinson would play one season with the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s Triple-A team in the International League, before getting his opportunity to shine at Ebbets Field.
Rickey controlled the Dodgers through 1950, owning a quarter of the team’s shares, until his piece of the team was bought out by Walter O’Malley. Realizing he would no longer be calling the shots in Brooklyn, Rickey accepted an offer to head to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh to run the Pirates. He did so through the 1955 season, remaining on the team’s payroll for the next five years as a "senior consultant" to the new general manager.
Rickey, who had settled into semiretirement, became a speaker on civil rights and race relations. But his passion for baseball remained. He joined with others who bemoaned the fact that Major League Baseball was confined to 16 teams. And, he embraced the idea that Big League Baseball could flourish in cities overlooked by the game’s owners. This was the inspiration for expansion, which Lowenfish considers Rickey’s third idea to revolutionize baseball.
The Continental League, with teams in U.S. and Canadian cities, would be created as a third Major League. The mere proposal of this new kid on the block jolted the powers that be in the National and American Leagues into taking action to stop this idea in its tracks. They did so with the announcement that two new American League teams would begin operating in 1961, followed by a pair of National League teams starting up in 1962. Rickey had played a role in increasing the number of teams by four. International expansion would come later in the decade as four more teams began play in 1969, with the Montreal Expos becoming Major League Baseball’s first team based outside the United States.
The chance to contribute to the game he loved was not over. In 1962, Rickey was called by Cardinals’ owner August Busch, asking Rickey if he would be interested in returning to St. Louis to work as a senior consultant. Lowenfish says Rickey, physically frail and in his 80s, traveled to St. Louis to talk with Busch. "He saw an opportunity to return to the Cardinals," writes Lowenfish, "The team he had put on the baseball map, and to St. Louis, a city he had never wanted to leave, where he had raised his six children and had become a pillar of church and community." On October 29, 1962, Rickey was introduced as the newest member of the Cardinals front office.
Rickey settled into his role with the team, often at odds with general manager Vaughan "Bing" Devine and other members of the team over who was in charge. Despite the front office differences, the team improved and captured the pennant and World Series championship in 1964. It wasn’t long after the Cards captured the World Series title that Rickey was told his services would no longer be needed. He returned to his home in suburban Ladue to finish writing "The American Diamond," his documentary of the game of baseball.
On November 13, 1965, Rickey was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He was not feeling well after returning home from a trip to Minnesota, where he was a guest at the World Series. But he insisted on attending the induction ceremonies at the Daniel Boone Hotel in Columbia. Earlier in the day, Rickey had attended the Missouri Tigers’ 30-0 shut out of the Oklahoma Sooners, a win that would send Mizzou to the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
At the ceremonies Saturday evening, Rickey was introduced by then-Cardinals broadcaster Harry Caray. Rickey began his comments by congratulating the Missouri football team, then spoke of courage – physical and spiritual. He started commenting on the connection between biblical figures and baseball heroes, but never had the chance to complete his thoughts. After a lengthy pause, Rickey staggered, told the audience of about 200 that he could not speak anymore, then collapsed into a chair. An unconscious Rickey was transported to a hospital, where he died on December 9th, having never regained consciousness. Funeral services were held four days later at Grace Methodist Church in St. Louis. His body was then taken "home" to southeastern Ohio for burial.
Of Rickey’s most famous act in baseball – the signing of Jackie Robinson – Lowenfish says there is no doubt Rickey saw the economic benefits in bringing to the game some of the greatest athletes. But, Lowenfish says dollars and cents played a minor part in Rickey’s interest in bringing black athletes into the fold. He believes Rickey’s Christian roots and desire for social justice led him to take the steps needed to forever change the face of America’s game.