Branch Rickey: Utmost Loyalty or Vehement Dislike
I have been enjoying the fine bio “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman by Lee Lowenfish. While doing so, an internal debate has erupted in my mind. The object of discussion is the polarized feelings of those from his baseball life.
Certain members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, such as Rogers Hornsby, and Ralph Kiner, professed no affection for this icon of the National Pastime. In fact Hornsby sniped at his former boss often. Especially after the Cardinals’ World Series victory in 1926, Rogers refused to share any credit with Rickey.
On the other hand, Kiner, while not as vocal, always seemed hurt or dismayed by the cheapness of the “Mahatma.” In fact, Kiner was part of one of the most recognized baseball quotes of all time, it is said that Rickey’s response to Kiner’s request for a raise after leading the N.L. in homeruns, “We finished in last with you, and we can finish in last without you!”
Branch Rickey had been referred to as “El Cheapo” which needs no definition, and “the Mahatma.” The dictionary defines “Mahatma as: a person venerated for spirituality and high-mindedness. It is used as a title of respect for such a person.”
Mahatma was a title given to Branch by both his fans and foes alike. It was said as both sarcastic and sincere.
As a member of S.A.B.R.’s Bio Project, I have had the opportunity to chat with and write bios for four men who played for the Mahatma. They were Carl Erskine, Wally Westlake, Frank Thomas, and Nellie King. Only Nellie spoke of the man admirably. Erskine remembered his former boss’ cheapness with tongue in cheek humor, and both Thomas and Westlake politely asked that the man’s name never be uttered during our conversations.
While there was no love loss by Rickey distracters, he did have some admirers. Nellie King being one of them. In fact, from what I understand, Nellie did a “spot-on” imitation of Branch. The baseball giant enjoyed it, and always had nice words for King. Nellie was fond of quoting Rickey’s baseball parables. In fact, the title of his book was taken from one of them, “Happiness is a Cur Dog.” In addition, one of the last books that King read before his death was “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman.”
While I was aware of the Nellie’s affection for the man, it was not until I saw the movie “42″ that became aware of the loyalty of another former player, Burt Shotten. For those familiar with the story and/ or saw the movie know of the famous story of Leo Durocher confronting his team very early one morning and quelled a potential mutiny involving many of the southern bred Dodgers concern over playing with Jackie Robinson. But not long after that situation Leo got himself into trouble through his association with George Raft, and was suspended for a year. Branch Rickey became frantic with the need for a manager, so he reached out to his loyal “tea toddling” friend, former player Burt Shotten.
At first, Shotten informed his former boss about a promise he made to his wife, that he was done wearing a baseball uniform. Rickey always the champion of family relations, informed Burt how he could accommodate that promise. Branch reminded him of Connie Mack, and how the great owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics managed in street clothes. Baseball rules stated that he was not allowed on the field during the game.
During the 1947 season, Shotten was referred to as the interim manager. Which, I am not positive, might be the longest interim period for any manager in major baseball history. Burt ushered in the Jackie Robinson era, and breaking the color barrier while also leading his Dodgers to the World Series.
Durocher came back for 1948, but with a 35-37 record after 73 games. He was dismissed and Shotten made yet another return. “The Lip” moved over to the Coogan’s Bluff to manage the hated rival Giants.
The friendship between Shotten and Rickey most probably began in 1913. That was the year that Branch began managing the St. Louis Browns. Burt was already into his fourth season, third full time, and he had a decent season. As a preeminent leadoff hitter of the time, He walked 99 times, stole 43 bases with a .297 batting average. Shotten also garnered 14 votes for the Most Valuable Player that season. Later he finished his playing career with Rickey and the St. Louis Cardinals.
After his playing career, Burt became a scout; this was followed by a stop in Syracuse to become a minor league manager. He went on to manage the Phillies in 1928 finishing his baseball career as a coach in both Cincinnati and Cleveland. His friend Branch was always supportive, so it was not a surprise when Brooklyn frantically needed a replacement manager, Rickey turned to Burt Shotten.
Shotten also went on to win the pennant for Brooklyn in 1949.
Branch Rickey had a similar relationship with another former player. George Sisler played for Branch Rickey as a freshman at the University of Michigan, then for the St. Louis Browns. Sisler would refer to Branch Rickey as “Coach” for the rest of his life. In 1939 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. In 1942 the “Coach” hired Sisler to scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One of his greatest contributions to the game of baseball was preparing Jackie Robinson to break the “color barrier.” He also taught Jackie the finer points of playing first base.
When Rickey moved onto Pittsburgh, Sisler joined him. He stayed there after Rickey left. During that period that he tutored Bill Mazeroski, and taught Roberto Clemente to keep his head still during his swing.
So it is not surprising that Rickey had two of his most trusted and former players for the special season of 1947.
In conclusion, those whose concern was measured by dollars nicknamed Rickey as “El Cheapo.” Yet to those who admired his wisdom and teachings, he would forever be known as the “Mahatma!”