May 25, 2024

Mr. Rickey’s Plantation

May 9, 2024 by · Leave a Comment 

Branch RickeyVolumes have been written about Jackie Robinson, his career, and the social ramifications of his appearance on a major league baseball field on April 15, 1947. A question worth asking is why this point in time was so propitious for breaking baseball’s color line. As always, following the money is instructive, so let’s look at the financial situation of major league baseball in 1947:

  1. The World War II draft had diluted major league rosters but also served to keep down salaries. Inferior players were hardly in a position to demand raises, and the Wage Stabilization Board had placed ceilings on the salaries of players.
  2. When the war was over, the Veterans Act assured players the right to return to their previous jobs for at least one year. The owners wrongly assumed that the veteran ballplayers would be so glad to be back that they would work for the same money. Routinely, the ballplayers were given the same contracts in 1946 that they had signed before they left for the service. After sacrificing prime playing years to serve the war effort, players returned to the USA to find that wartime inflation had diminished the value of their contracts. In effect, they were asked to take a pay cut. Because of the reserve clause, players had no leverage. Military paychecks were not conducive to building a nest egg that might have enabled them to hold out.
  3. Rumors of a players’ union were spreading. Robert Murphy, famed lawyer for the CIO and a former examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, founded the American Baseball Guild. In 1946, the first season after the war, baseball attendance was way up all across the country in leagues major and minor, so the owners made some concessions to Murphy’s demands. But could they have done more? “The players have been offered an apple, but they could have had an orchard,” lamented Murphy.
  4. Mexican tycoon (and President of the Mexican League) Jorge Pasquel and his four brothers attempted to start a rival major league in Mexico and actually persuaded some major leaguers (referred to as “Mexican jumping beans”) to leave their teams and head south of the border. Included in the exodus were some prominent players, such as Sal Maglie, Max Lanier, and Vern Stephens. The team most depleted was the New York Giants, who lost eight players.
  5. The Pacific Coast League was making noises about becoming a third major league. West Coast pro ball had evolved apart from the major leagues and could boast of some pretty fair teams and players. The PCL had no agreement with the American and National Leagues. Like the old Federal League of 1915-1916, they could raid existing major league rosters with impunity if they chose to upgrade to major league status.

Any one of the above threats to business as usual in major league baseball was serious but manageable; taken as a whole, they presented a more formidable challenge. The savvy owner of a post-war baseball team could readily perceive that these threats occurring simultaneously would likely erode his position when it came time to talk contracts with players. The owner still had a decent hand, but he was no longer holding all the cards. What could he do to hold down salaries?

Well, expanding the labor pool has always been a sure-fire way of holding wages down, and one way to achieve that in 1947 was to integrate the major league rosters with the established players of the Negro leagues. Over the years, numerous exhibition games between major leaguers and Negro leaguers had shown that the black players could more than hold their own so it was a fait accompli that they would one day be on major league rosters.

So, 1947, financially speaking, was the ideal time to introduce integration to organized baseball. In that regard, we need to take a closer look at Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey, who is generally conceded to be the winner of the best supporting actor award in the Jackie Robinson drama.

Rickey was renowned as a shrewd judge of horseflesh when it came to horsehide talent. His choice of Robinson, who was educated, intelligent, mature but not over the hill physically, patient but not passive, all in addition to being a top-drawer talent, would appear to be inspired.

While Robinson was the first black player to actually sign a contract in the 20th Century, he was not the only player Rickey scouted. One name quickly stricken from the list was Cuban shortstop Silvio Garcia. Meeting Garcia in Havana, Rickey asked him what he would do if a white man insulted him. “I kill him!” snapped Garcia. Those three little words scuttled Garcia’s chance to make baseball history. When Rickey grilled Robinson on the subject, the answers were more in keeping with Rickey’s oft-professed turn-the-other-cheek sensibilities.

While it appears that Rickey dubbed Robinson “most likely to succeed,” he had other players waiting in the wings in case Robinson didn’t work out. Indeed, Rickey signed not only the first black player, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth (pitcher John Wright, catcher Roy Campanella, pitcher Roy Partlow, and pitcher Don Newcombe).

To this day, Rickey, with all the innovations and accomplishments of his long baseball career, is primarily remembered as the man who signed Jackie Robinson. While tales of Robinson’s forbearance are still widely disseminated, the image of Rickey is somewhat fuzzier to the general public. If anything, he functions as a John the Baptist figure preparing the way for Robinson. Though the arrival of Robinson occurred late in Rickey’s career (he was 63 when he signed Robinson), it probably did more to sanctify his image than anything else he did.

Wesley Branch Rickey, born December 20, 1881, in Pike County, Ohio, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and made his major league debut as a backup catcher with the St. Louis Browns in 1905. His career was less than illustrious (.239 lifetime batting average) and when he hurt his arm during the 1906-1907 off-season, his playing days were all but over. After a short stint with the New York Highlanders (forerunners of the Yankees) in 1907, he retired and went to law school at the University of Michigan, where he was also a coach. An abortive attempt at practicing law in Idaho led him to accept a low-level front office job with the Browns, whom he managed in 1914 and 1915. After a stint in the military during World War I, he returned to St. Louis, this time with the Cardinals, for whom he served as team president and manager.

The Cardinals are regarded as a bellwether franchise in major league baseball, but such was not the case when Rickey joined them in 1919. The Cardinals, who had been a National League franchise since 1876, had never won a pennant. In fact, the franchise was so impoverished, the team had no money for a spring training trip and had to get in shape in St. Louis. The Cardinals’ home park, Robison Field, the last of the all-wood baseball parks, was such a firetrap that firemen patrolled the stands during games. In 1920, they became tenants at Sportsman’s Park, the ballpark owned by the Browns, and did not purchase the facility till the Browns moved to Baltimore after the 1953 season.

After a managerial record of 597-664, Rickey left the dugout early in the 1925 season. If this had been the end of the road for Rickey (he was then 43 years old), he never would have earned a plaque in Cooperstown. But by moving into the front office full-time, he found his true calling.

Under player-manager Rogers Hornsby, the Cardinals won their first National League pennant and defeated the favored Yankees in the World Series of 1926, just one year after Rickey repaired to the front office. Over the next few years, the Cardinals evolved an identity: the Gashouse Gang featuring Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, and Ducky Medwick.

Rickey duplicated this achievement when he took over the Brooklyn Dodgers and put together the Boys of Summer in the late 40s. Along the way he was responsible for a number of innovations that are now SOP in baseball: spring training complexes, batting helmets, batting tees, batting cages, pitching machines, sliding pits, knothole gangs, and statisticians, among others. And when it came to the bottom line – i.e., maximizing wins/income while minimizing losses, both on the field and in the ledger – he was without peer. Impressed by Rickey’s baseball smarts and penchant for pontification, New York Telegraph sportswriter Tom Meany dubbed him “The Mahatma.”

Other nicknames were less than complimentary. New York Post sportswriter Jimmy Cannon referred to him as “El Cheapo.” The skinflint aspect of Rickey’s personality was emphasized by many observers. In reference to Rickey’s swan song as a player when, as a sore-armed catcher, he allowed 13 runners to steal on him in one game (still a major league record), one of his Dodger subordinates remarked, “Nobody has stolen anything on him since.”

But if Rickey’s players were underpaid, the number of men on the payroll quickly grew after the Cardinals first began buying minor league teams in 1921. Since the Cardinals were a cash-poor team, they couldn’t afford to buy talented performers from minor league teams, as the wealthier teams were able to do. A cheaper alternative was to grow their own minor league talent.

Rickey had wanted to implement a farm system when he was with the Browns but the advent of the Federal League in 1915 prevented that, as the addition of a St. Louis franchise (the Terriers) meant that the city had three major league baseball teams. Under the circumstances, the Browns had their hands full just maintaining the status quo. Of course, if Rickey had been able to create a farm system for the Browns and if he had been as successful as he was with the Cardinals, then the Browns might have become the dominant franchise, and the Cardinals might have been forced to move.

By 1931, the Cardinals owned 16 teams. Rickey’s attempts to corner the market in young talent worked out for the Cardinals, giving them a decisive advantage over other teams – too much of an advantage. Then as now, when one team dominates the league, it is not a good thing in an industry where competition itself is the end product, not a means to an end. Rickey, however, considered it merely a means for the mass production of baseball players. “Out of quantity comes quality” was one of his many maxims.

But in 1938, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge renowned for trust busting, smelled monopoly or “syndicate baseball” in Rickey’s “chain gang,” as the Cardinals owned not just teams but, in some cases, entire leagues, such as the Arkansas-Missouri and the Nebraska State Leagues. Landis also felt that the integrity of minor league ball was called into question if teams existed primarily to develop talent for major league affiliates, rather than play to win in their respective leagues. In addition, he felt that minor league teams fared better under local ownership.

Perhaps Landis’s biggest complaint was that Rickey’s system of stockpiling players thwarted upward mobility for players. No matter how many good players the Cardinals had in the minors, they had but 25 roster spots on the big-league club, thus dooming many talented players to minor league careers. Landis stripped 73 minor leaguers from the Cardinals organization and made them free agents.

Landis’s decree only temporarily halted Rickey’s juggernaut, however. In 1940, the Cardinals still had a controlling interest in 33 franchises, representing one tenth of all minor league teams. But when the war came along, the draft plucked 265 players from the Cardinals system, prompting them to place a help wanted ad in The Sporting News.

Since Landis was as overbearing and image-conscious as Rickey, he might have been sore that Rickey’s $50,000 salary was higher than his by $10,000. But Landis had almost limitless powers to act for the good of baseball, so if he lost the battle of the paychecks, he was in a good position to win the clash of egos. He described Rickey as a “hypocritical preacher” … “always masquerading with a minister’s robe.”

There are numerous opinions of Rickey on the record. They are diverse, to say the least, and sometimes contradictory. In reading the numerous characterizations, one almost feels as if one is watching the opening scene of Citizen Kane, where opinions of the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane run the gamut:

“Rickey was a moral man who made some clearly immoral maneuvers to get ahead in the game.”–Sportswriter Maury Allen

“Rickey was a genius, a man who could have attained the top rank in any business or profession.”–Sportswriter Arthur Daley

“There was a lot of hustler in him and plenty of actor. But he came on strongest as an evangelist.”–Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon

“Branch Rickey was a multi-talented man, as exciting and spellbinding as anybody I’ve ever known.”–Catcher/broadcaster Joe Garagiola

“Known in equal parts for being a genius, tightwad, saint, hypocrite, innovator, and poacher.”–Pat Doyle, Baseball Almanac

“Branch Rickey is a player, manager, executive, lawyer, preacher, horse-trader, spellbinder, innovator, husband and father and grandfather, farmer, logician, obscurantist, reformer, financier, sociologist, crusader, sharper, father confessor, checker-shark, friend and fighter.”–Sportswriter Red Smith

“He had the flair of a Barrymore and would have been a great actor. As a minister, he would have been the equal of Harry Emerson Fosdick [a famous clergyman during the 1920s and 1930s].”–Howard Green, owner of the Abilene Blue Sox, a Dodger affiliate

“There was something about [Branch Rickey] of the traveling medicine-show man, something of W.C. Fields.”–Sportswriter Roger Angell

“Branch Rickey still ranks as the smartest baseball man in the business today, if not the smartest of all time.”–Sportswriter Al Abrams

“If Mr. Rickey were elected president and sent to Washington, he would own the government in 30 days.”–Catcher/coach Gus Mancuso

“Mr. Rickey was so famous for knowing so much about everything that I was always afraid to talk to him.”–HOF infielder Bill Mazeroski

“Rickey is one of baseball’s immortals. As long as the game lives, so will the memory of Branch Rickey and the contributions he made to it.”–Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, Jr.

“Branch Rickey was a strict Methodist (he did not attend games on Sunday); his personal habits were disciplined; he was dramatic; he was perhaps more egocentric than most people; and he continually and carefully planned ahead.”–Baseball executive Lee MacPhail

It is this last trait that cannot be emphasized enough. Rickey was not a gambler, even though he sometimes appeared to be taking great risks. “Luck is the residue of design” is one of his oft-quoted maxims. So, it would be wrong to say that Rickey “lucked out” by signing Robinson.

Robinson signed his contract with Rickey on October 23, 1945. The contract was hardly exorbitant, as it paid Robinson $600 a month and provided a $3,500 bonus. This, of course, was just two months after the end of World War II in the Pacific, but for Rickey it was not so much a change in policy as it was a culmination of his old policies. While other owners were maintaining low-key operations during the war years and awaiting a return to business as usual, Rickey was already looking towards the postwar world and doing whatever he could to make sure the Dodgers got a head start in that world. He sent out 20,000 letters to high school coaches, increased his scouting staff by a factor of four, and ran nationwide tryout camps for boys not yet of draft age, figuring that even if they were drafted, their baseball skills would still be worth something in the postwar world. Gil Hodges, Clem Labine, and Duke Snider were all brought into the Dodger fold during World War II. As Dodger secretary-historian Harold Parrott noted, “Nobody could match his knack for putting a dollar sign on a muscle.”

Rickey also implied that he was interested in starting a new Negro League, which served as cover for his scouting of black players. Realizing that how they behaved off the field was as important as how they behaved on the field, Rickey did background checks and criminal checks on the black ballplayers he signed to make sure he didn’t get any bad apples. He also realized that the behavior of black fans was crucial to the success of his plan, so he met with New York’s black leaders, who had connections in all the National League cities, to get out the word: “Don’t spoil it for Jackie.”

In retrospect, it appears that Rickey had designs on cornering the market in black players, just as he had with white minor league talent in previous decades. Obviously, Rickey and his scouts did their homework well, as four black Dodgers he signed won Rookie of the Year awards (Jackie Robinson in 1947, Don Newcombe in 1949, Joe Black in 1952, and Junior Gilliam in 1953). Also the National League Most Valuable Player award was won by Robinson in 1949, Roy Campanella in 1951, 1953, and 1955, and Don Newcombe in 1956. Indeed, signing Negro League players had been on Rickey’s mind since he first came to the Dodgers in late 1942. In 1944, he was appointed to a task force that addressed race relations in New York, where the integration of major league baseball was a hot topic before the war, so Rickey’s actions should not have taken anyone in the baseball world by surprise.

Seeing the future is one thing; paying for it another. In that Rickey was a hardheaded realist, not a dreamy-eyed visionary. While opinions of Rickey varied, on one trait there was a consensus. Those who knew him best frequently remarked about his tightfistedness. In this respect, he was certainly not alone among baseball executives. But Rickey had a reputation for squeezing even harder than his peers.

In 1959, at a banquet commemorating the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1934 Cardinals, Rickey made a speech praising the old Gas House Gang. “Why, they loved the game so much, by Judas Priest [a favorite Rickey expletive], I believe those boys would have played for nothing.” The retort from third baseman Pepper Martin was immediate: “By John Brown, thanks to you, Mr. Rickey, we almost did!” There are many other voices on record that echo Martin’s sentiments:

“Mr. Rickey had a heart of gold, and he kept it.”–Dodger outfielder Gene Hermanski

“He was always going to the vault to give you a nickel’s change.”–Hall of Fame outfielder Enos Slaughter

“There are two things Mr. Rickey loves. One is players, and the other is money. But for some reason he never lets them get together.”–TV star/Dodger first baseman Chuck Connors

“He believed in God, Jesus, and the Bible, and except in the case of player salaries, was an advocate of fairness, decency, and fair play.”–Peter Golenbock, Author of Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers

“The cheapest, the shrewdest, and the most hardhearted of men.”–Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher

“Money isn’t any more important to Rickey than legs are to Betty Grable.”–Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon

“Mr. Rickey was the forerunner of the management side that brought about the players’ union organization. With his parsimonious attitude to the baseball player, he did more than any other person to bring about the union.”–Hall of Fame outfielder Ralph Kiner

“I got a million dollars’ worth of free advice and a very small raise.”–Player/manager Eddie Stanky

Rickey was a popular subject for sports cartoonists, who often likened him to Ebeneezer Scrooge or a plantation overseer. With his bushy eyebrows and omnipresent cigar and bow tie, he was a caricature waiting to happen, no matter what his pecuniary peccadilloes. An ardent prohibitionist, his puritanical sermonizing did not make him personally popular in St. Louis (his objection to Falstaff Beer sponsoring Cardinal broadcasts was one factor in his exit from St. Louis after the 1942 season) or Brooklyn, even when his teams were winning the hearts and minds of the populace. Nevertheless, he was not above employing boozers who were good ballplayers. According to Casey Stengel, “He [Rickey] wouldn’t take a drink, but he’d hire a man who would if he could slide across home plate.”

As is the case with many trial lawyers, politicians, and preachers, Rickey loved the sound of his own voice. After first meeting Rickey, Dodger catcher Roy Campanella described him as “the talkingest man I ever did see.” As New York sportswriters often said of him, “The more he talks, the more we count the spoons.” They dubbed the room where he held his press conferences “The Cave of the Winds.”

It’s hardly surprising that Rickey – a lifelong Republican – seriously considered running for office in Missouri in 1940. The still-popular Franklin Roosevelt was running for his third term as President, however, so it was not a good time to run as a Republican (FDR won Missouri by 958,476 to 871,009 for Wendell Willkie). Had the political climate been different, post-1940 baseball history might have been very different also.

Indeed, in descriptions of Rickey, adjectives such as “pompous” and “pious” pop up almost as frequently as “cheap.” Playing the God card is a rare move by baseball bigwigs today (aside from the obligatory “thoughts and prayers” phrase after someone dies), but Rickey did not hesitate to do so. He once pronounced “I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that his black children are held separate from his white children in the game that has given me all I own.” He might have influenced Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, who remarked, “I thought someday I’d have to meet my maker and he’d say, ‘What did you do with those black boys?’”

An oft-told story concerns Rickey’s days as a coach for Ohio Wesleyan University. During a 1904 road trip to South Bend, Indiana, a black player on his team, was forced to sleep on the floor of Rickey’s room because the hotel would not provide him suitable accommodations. Rickey, relating how the distraught player rubbed his skin, wishing he could erase the color and became white, often cited this incident as an epiphany in his life. Since this incident took place more than 40 years before Jackie Robinson arrived on the scene, Rickey’s many critics wondered why he waited so long to take action. Some wondered why Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was the only ballpark in the major leagues with segregated seating, a policy which remained in place throughout Rickey’s tenure with the Cardinals. Also, throughout his career (supposedly as a promise to his mother) he had steadfastly refused to play, manage, or even attend baseball games on Sunday, but he had no objections to the Cardinals, Dodgers, or Pirates scheduling afternoon games or double-headers on the Lord’s Day, drawing large crowds and enhancing team revenue. Though he did not attend such contests, his religious scruples did not forbid listening to the game on radio or phoning in to the ballpark to check on the gate receipts.

Perhaps the central question pertaining to Rickey was this: was he doing God’s work or just taking care of business? Which came first? The Almighty or the almighty dollar? If the former, then the Creator, unlike Rickey, was a most munificent employer. In 1934, Rickey was the highest paid man in baseball at $49,470. In 1942, his last year with the Cardinals, he was paid a salary of $80,000, while his best pitcher, Lon Warneke, was paid only $15,000.

Rickey was always among the highest-paid executives, while his players tended towards the other end of the pay scale. When he organized the Cardinals’ and Dodgers’ minor league system, his contract called for him to receive a percentage of the money received from the sale of players to other organizations. So he had every incentive to acquire teams and load up on prospects. Not only was he tying up all the talent for his franchise, when he sold off excess inventory, he lined his own pockets.

As one might expect, Rickey’s emphasis on making a buck made some suspicious that if it came down to making a buck versus winning, the former would prevail. Former Cardinal and Hall of Fame outfielder Johnny Mize believed that Rickey liked the idea of his teams competing in pennant races to enhance the box office, but he didn’t really want them to win the pennant, as the players would inevitably ask for more money the following year.

One telling incident from Rickey’s managerial tenure with the Cardinals concerns Austin McHenry, a 27-year-old outfielder who died of a brain tumor in 1922. Declaring that flowers wouldn’t bring McHenry back, Rickey declined to send any to his funeral. This was hardly the decent response to the death of a man who had managed to hit over .300 in 238 at bats just months before he died, and had provided Rickey and the Cardinals with 201 hits, a .350 average, 17 home runs and 102 RBI’s the season before.

Another incident of note concerns Dodger pitcher George “Shotgun” Shuba, who wanted a raise to $23,000. During the negotiations, Rickey just happened to have Jackie Robinson’s contract (which indicated he was being paid $21,000) sitting on his desk. Leaving the room to answer a phone call, Rickey knew that Shuba would glance at the contract, re-assess his position on the salary spectrum, and then agree to a lesser figure, which turned out to be $20,000. The contract and the phone call, however, were both bogus. Shuba had been snookered by a master.

This was small potatoes, however, compared to Rickey’s triumphal exit from Brooklyn. Engaged in a front office power struggle with Walter O’Malley, an equally devious and strong-willed man who considered him a “psalm-singing fake,” Rickey knew he would eventually be forced out of Brooklyn. He had an offer to go to Pittsburgh, but if he accepted a job with the Pirates, he would have to sell his Dodger stock first. Knowing that Rickey was in financial straits at the time, O’Malley offered to buy him out at a lowball figure. He thought he had Rickey over a barrel, but it was actually the other way around. John Galbreath, the Pirates’ owner had put Rickey in touch with a wealthy New York real estate developer who made an “official” offer to buy Rickey’s Dodger stock for a million dollars – almost three times what O’Malley had offered. According to his contract, Rickey had to offer the stock to O’Malley at the same price before selling it to someone outside the organization. Adding insult to injury, O’Malley had to pay $50,000 to the real estate developer as compensation for denying him the stock – only to find out that the developer gave the money to Rickey! Though O’Malley was cursed by Brooklyn baseball fans for decades, few knew how much it had cost him to gain control of the Dodgers.

It is intriguing to ponder what Rickey might have done if he had been the decision-maker when it came time to quit Brooklyn or stay put. Though he insisted that the people of Brooklyn had been betrayed by O’Malley’s move, Rickey had never let sentiment play a part in his management decisions, no matter how the fans felt about it. He maintained it was better to trade a player a year early than to keep him a year too late. This obviously put him at loggerheads with fans when he traded a popular player but it proved to be a sound policy. Of the players he traded, their post-Rickey careers were definitely lesser than their exploits with Rickey’s teams. Even for young players on the way up, getting a raise out of Rickey was problematic.

Despite assorted health problems, outfielder Chick Hafey (HOF 1971) won the National League batting title in 1931, but when he asked Rickey for a raise, he was promptly traded.

Pitcher Dizzy Dean (HOF 1953) won 30 games in 1934; after he followed that up with 28 victories in 1935, he was asked to take a pay cut.

Ralph Kiner (HOF 1975), who led the National League in home runs for his first seven years (1946-1952) in the big leagues with the Pirates, was asked to take a 20% pay cut by Rickey, who told him they had finished last with him, so they could just as easily finish last without him.

Players noted that in contract negotiations with Rickey, the focus was typically on the player’s shortcomings, not his strengths. In any confrontation with Rickey, the player was overmatched. Indeed, so were other baseball executives. In any convocation of MLB brain trust during his front office career from the mid-1920’s through the mid-1950’s, he was the shrewdest, if not the smartest, guy in the room.

Intelligence aside, his holier-than-thou demeanor irritated his peers. That he could conceivably be wrong never seemed to occur to him. Like many a head honcho, he considered change subversive unless he was the agent of change. When labor rumblings were afoot in the late 1940s, Rickey noted that “The reserve clause was opposed by people with avowed communist tendencies.” Yet when he wanted to upset the applecart by starting a third major league in the late 1950’s, that was doing the right thing. Given his skills as a master planner and the results he achieved, his self-righteousness wasn’t entirely unjustified.

Despite Rickey’s stern religious leanings and proclivity for thrift, his lifestyle was hardly abstemious. A 1955 article in Sports Illustrated, profiling Rickey in his latter years in Pittsburgh, notes his frequent lunches at the posh Duquesne Club and his 18-room mansion on a 100-acre spread in the exclusive suburb of Fox Chapel. It is also remarkable that during his tenure with the Dodgers, he had a private plane and pilot – a rare amenity indeed during the 1940’s. Yet Rickey could proclaim “I believe that ‘Thou shalt earn the bread by the sweat of thy face’ was a benediction and not a penalty. Work is the zest of life; there is joy in its pursuit.” Given the profitability of Rickey’s vocation, one can see why he would think so. One wonders if it ever occurred to Rickey that his teams’ budgets would hardly have been wrecked if he were paid a little bit less and his players a little bit more. The players might have discovered even more zest and joy in their work!

Having considered Rickey’s character and personality, we can now ponder the question of whether he was attempting to put the Negro Leagues out of business. The integration of organized baseball spelled doom for the Negro Leagues, but whether that was a consequence or an objective of integration is open to conjecture.

While Rickey was quick to sign players from the Negro Leagues, he was loath to provide any sort of compensation to the teams they left behind. This infuriated the owners of the Negro League teams, since it was customary to pay the former team something when signing one of their players. Rickey, however, held the Negro Leagues in very low esteem and felt he owed them nothing:

“They [the Negro Leagues] are the poorest excuse for the word league and by comparison with organized baseball, which they understandably try to copy.”

“They are not leagues and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them.”

Whether they were true leagues or not, whatever anyone thought of them, they had developed the ballplayers that Rickey gobbled up. The Negro Leagues planted the seeds and nurtured them. Rickey barged in when the players were ripe and harvested them.

There is one more reason why Rickey detested the Negro Leagues, and it has nothing to do with finances. According to Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin, who played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League before he signed with the New York Giants:

“I made more money when I was in the majors, and the caliber of baseball and the playing conditions were better, but I had more fun with the Negro Leagues.”

Amid the welter of adjectives used to describe Rickey, “fun-loving” or “jovial” or “great sense of humor” or words to that effect are noticeably absent. For Rickey, baseball was a serious – indeed almost sacred – undertaking. He felt that the Negro League players, talented as they were, didn’t revere the game as much as he did. Also, Rickey held a jaundiced view of the “executive” ranks of the Negro leagues – and not without reason. A number of teams were owned by local gangsters. Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley (the only woman in the Hall of Fame) was married to Abe Manley, who ran the numbers racket in Newark. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, was similarly situated in his hometown – and a saloon owner to boot. Rickey might have convinced himself that by bringing black players into the major leagues he was removing them from the baneful influence of the team owners and doing something akin to saving souls.

The integration of the Dodgers gave Rickey the opportunity to do God’s work while keeping salaries down. In a sense, major league ballplayers pre-1947 enjoyed a guild-like privilege of practicing a profession that set a quota (400, based on 16 major league teams with 25 players per team) on those eligible to join their ranks. Bill Veeck noted that, more often than not, the white players who complained the most about integration were fringe players, the ones most likely to find themselves out of jobs if the best black players were transferred to major league rosters. One might suspect that the same was true of the Negro League players who complained about Jackie Robinson going to the Dodgers. The best players knew they had a shot at the big leagues but the fringe players could see that their careers would die with the Negro Leagues. Indeed, the integration of major league baseball resulted in fewer blacks playing professional baseball. When the Negro Leagues died, the jobs of hundreds of black ballplayers died with them. The best of the bunch had no trouble finding employment in organized baseball. The others faded away.

Now one might declare that the players eventually got the last laugh, that the tightwad owners of yore have given way to today’s spendthrifts. While the mega-salaries of today’s stars draw plenty of media attention, perhaps more significant are the salaries pulled down by mediocre veterans who warm the bench in the dugout or do mop-up work out of the bullpen. The major league minimum salary creeps upward during good and bad times. It was $720,000/year in 2023, a tidy sum even after allowing for inflation. How Rickey would have functioned in the post-reserve clause world of modern baseball is anyone’s guess.

In Rickey’s day or today, however, image is often more important that reality. With the stroke of a pen (wielded by Jackie Robinson when he signed his contract), Rickey, the man who was accused of running baseball’s biggest plantation in the 1930s and 1940s, managed to transform his image to that of a great emancipator. Not for nothing was a picture of Abraham Lincoln displayed prominently in his office, no matter what team he worked for. But not everybody was impressed:

“But if Rickey was a Moses who led black players into organized baseball, he was also a pharaoh who developed the bonds that held the minor leagues in their subordinate state.”–Neil J. Sullivan, author of The Minors: The Struggles and the Triumph of Baseball’s Poor Relation From 1876 to the Present

“Only the naive would believe that all Rickey was trying to do was break baseball’s color barrier. B.R. slyly had Jackie Robinson hand-picked, and he had Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe thoroughly scouted before deciding, in 1945, that his Christian conscience would no longer permit him to discriminate against his black brother.”–Sportswriter Bob Broeg

Rickey knew what was coming. In early 1947, before Robinson had played an inning for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, Rickey stated:

“Baseball was on shaky legal ground. Blacks had died with whites in that terrible conflict [World War II]. It would be only a matter of time, I reasoned, before the courts of the land would by decree force our national game into doing the right, the proper, the decent thing. I seized that moment and predict that the Brooklyn club in the forefront of a just cause will be the dominant club in the National League for the next ten years at least.”

He was certainly right about that. The Dodgers won pennants in 1947, 1949 (they missed out on the last day of the season in 1950 and 1951), 1952, 1953, 1955 (their only World Series championship while in Brooklyn), and 1956.

And Rickey was likely right about the courts. After 14 years of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt, and related phenomena, the pressure was on to integrate organized baseball. In New York the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers felt the heat from political entities as diverse as the American Communist Party and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s “Committee of Ten” – chaired by none other than Branch Rickey. The New York state legislature had already passed the Ives-Quinn Law which barred discrimination in employment. One didn’t need psychic abilities to predict that integration, whether mandated by courts, legislation or executive fiat, was in the offing for organized baseball.

If the government were forced to integrate baseball, however, no glory would have accrued to Rickey or any other baseball executive. Thomas W. Gilbert, author of Baseball and the Color Line (published in 1995), noted “Like any good politician, Branch Rickey was a master at appearing to lead events that were actually leading him.” Indeed, he might have been worried that Horace Stoneham, owner of the Giants (who moved quickly to sign black players once the ice was broken), or Indians’ owner Bill Veeck would beat him to the punch.

Branch Rickey is long gone (he died in 1965) but his legacy is enduring. Today no team in major league baseball has a farm system anywhere near as extensive as the one created by Rickey, but there are still plenty of recruits eager and willing to toil in the fields in the hopes that they will one day be invited into the big house, better known as the major leagues. Curiously, the late Bart Giamatti, Baseball Commissioner and Renaissance scholar, once likened a baseball field to a paradisiacal garden. That uplifting comparison may be apt for some players, but in the minor leagues today, many of the players in that garden are little more than field hands with little if any upward mobility.

Judas priest, what else would you expect to find on a plantation? Especially one overseen by a man with deep pockets and short arms, a man who was into virtue-signaling decades before virtue-signaling was cool!

SOURCES

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Moffi, Larry and Kronstadt, Jonathan, Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers 1947-1959, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

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Veeck, Bill, The Hustler’s Handbook, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965.

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