In 1955, Sports Illustrated’s Gerald Holland interviewed perhaps the most famous front office man in baseball history—Branch Rickey.
Although widely credited for integrating the majors by signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, that shouldn’t define Rickey, as he had a long an diverse career in the sport.
It took him quite a while to find success. He began as a player, playing catcher and outfield in parts of four seasons with the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees. However, hitting .239 with three home runs (although it was the Deadball Era) in 120 total games didn’t win him a permanent job, and he had to find another way to stay in the game.
He managed the Browns and St. Louis Cardinals for 10 seasons but finished with a sub-.500 record and only reached as high as a third place finish twice during that time.
Rickey found his greatest success in the front office. From 1919 to 1955 he served as the general manager and president of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates. In addition to his groundbreaking collaboration with Robinson, he was innovative throughout his career, as he championed things like scouting, the farm system development, and the use of batting helmets among others.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967—two years after he passed away at the age of 83. One of the greatest pioneers in the game’s history, it was a richly deserved honor.
The Holland interview is intriguing insight into the great executive. Reading the entire piece is well worth the time. However, for the sake of closer inspection, I am pulling out what I believe to be the most interesting portions of Rickey’s statements during the interview, and including my own thoughts in italics.
On his vow to never play baseball on Sundays: "Of my career in baseball, let us say first of all that there have been the appearances of hypocrisy. Here we have the Sunday school mollycoddle, apparently professing a sort of public virtue in refraining from playing or watching a game of baseball on Sunday. And yet at the same time he is not above accepting money from a till replenished by Sunday baseball.
A deeply personal thing. Something not to be exploited, not to be put forward protestingly at every whisper of criticism. No, a deeply personal thing. A man's promise, a promise to his mother. Not involving a condemnation of baseball on Sunday, nor of others who might desire to play it or watch it on Sunday. Simply one man's promise—and it might as well have been a promise not to attend the theater or band concerts in the park."
Rickey’s refusal to play ball on the Sabbath has always been one of those baseball maxims used as a general tool to describe him as a person. The clarification he provides about how he came about this standard, and how he very clearly refutes it being a morality issue, is refreshing to say the least.
On Some of His Contributions to Baseball: "More than a half-century spent in the game and now it is suggested that I give thought to some of the ideas and innovations with which I have been associated. The question arises, 'Which of these can be said to have contributed most to making baseball truly our national game?'
First, I should say, there was the mass production of ballplayers. The Cardinals were three years ahead of all the other clubs in establishing try-out camps. We looked at 4,000 boys a year. Then, of course, we had to have teams on which to place boys with varying degrees of ability and experience. That brought into being the farm system.
There were other ideas not ordinarily remembered. With the St. Louis Browns, under Mr. Hedges, we originated the idea of Ladies Day, a very important step forward. Probably no other innovation did so much to give baseball respectability, as well as thousands of new fans.”
The importance of the contributions of Rickey to the modern concept of minor league farm systems and advanced scouting cannot be overstated. Teams’ ability to plan and build for the future made it much easier to compete with organizations with deeper pockets and greater cache, like the New York Yankees.
The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals are the best current examples of the unlimited possibilities that can be reaped by embracing Rickey’s innovations. Really, it’s one of the greatest things a team can have—the ability to be successful on a self-sustainable level.
On His Role Bringing Jackie Robinson to the Majors: "Some honors have been tendered. Some honorary degrees offered because of my part in bringing Jackie Robinson into the major leagues.
No, no, no. I have declined them all. To accept honors, public applause for signing a superlative ballplayer to a contract? I would be ashamed!"
Regardless of how modest he was regarding being the front-office man to finally sign a black player; Rickey will always be congratulated for his role in integrating the game. He may have done nothing more than simply the “right thing,” but doing so in the staunchly segregated majors took a certain degree of chutzpah that only an executive of his reputation would have been able to pull off.
On The Process of Identifying Robinson as the First Player to Integrate the Majors: "I talked to sociologists and to Negro leaders. With their counsel, I worked out what I considered to be the six essential points to be considered.
Number one, the man we finally chose had to be right off the field…
Number two, he had to be right on the field. If he turned out to be a lemon, our efforts would fail for that reason alone.
Number three, the reaction of his own race had to be right.
Number four, the reaction of press and public had to be right.
Number five, we had to have a place to put him.
Number six, the reaction of his fellow players had to be right.
In Jackie Robinson, we found the man to take care of points one and two. He was eminently right off and on the field. We did not settle on Robinson until after we had invested $25,000 in scouting for a man whose name we did not then know.
Having found Robinson, we proceeded to point five. We had to have a place to put him. Luckily, in the Brooklyn organization, we had exactly the spot at Montreal where the racial issue would not be given undue emphasis.
To take care of point three, the reaction of Robinson's own race, I went again to the Negro leaders. I explained that in order to give this boy his chance, there must be no demonstrations in his behalf, no excursions from one city to another, no presentations or testimonials. He was to be left alone to do this thing without any more hazards than were already present. For two years the men I talked to respected the reasoning behind my requests. My admiration for these men is limitless. In the best possible way, they saw to it that Jackie Robinson had his chance to make it on his own.
Point four, the reaction of press and public, resolved itself in the course of things, and point six, the reaction of his fellow players, finally—if painfully—worked itself out."
Rickey’s detailing of the process he went through in identifying a course of action for Robinson is fascinating. In particular, his consultation of black community leaders is a part of the story rarely recounted in the re-tellings of the MLB integration narrative.
What was needed to make a success out of Robinson was an elaborate scheme of infinite layers, with Rickey thinking years into the future and of scenarios far from the playing field. Although Robinson had a tough go of it, the remarkable grace and poise he showed in his career demonstrates the great pay-off from the detailed planning.
On the Best Pitchers He Ever Saw: "The greatest pitchers I have ever seen were Christy Mathewson and Jerome “Dizzy” Dean.
Mathewson could throw every pitch in the book. But he was economical. If he saw that he could win a game with three kinds of pitches, he would use only three. Jerome, on the other hand, had a tendency to run in the direction of experimentation. Murry Dickson has a fine assortment of pitches, but he feels an obligation to run through his entire repertory in every game.
Yes, Murry is the sort of pitcher who will go along splendidly until the eighth inning and then apparently say to himself: 'Oh, dear me, I have forgotten to throw my half-speed ball!' And then and there he will throw it."
Two of Rickey’s choices are fairly easy picks.
Mathewson won 373 games and had a 2.13 ERA in a 17-year career. Although his teams only won one World Series, they made four appearances, and the right-hander became perhaps the greatest postseason pitcher of all-time, with a 0.97 ERA and four shutouts in 11 starts.
Because of injury, Dean had a small window of dominance, but when he was good, he was very good. Pitching for the Cardinals from 1932 through 1936, he won a total of 120 games and had 123 complete games while leading the National League in innings three times and strikeouts four times. Rickey, serving as the team’s president and general manager, would have had a front row seat to that video game-esque production.
The inclusion of Dickson is less obvious. With a career record of 172-181 with a 3.66 ERA in 18 major league seasons, the small right-hander was the picture of solid mediocrity. Interestingly, Rickey’s assertion that the pitcher had a tendency to meltdown in the eighth inning was surprisingly accurate, as his ERA jumped over half a run from the seventh to the eighth in his career, according to BaseballReference.com.
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