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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Revisiting an Interview with Branch Rickey

An interview can reveal a lot about its subject as long as the right questions are asked. There is little more fascinating than coming across such sources that had largely disappeared into the ether. One of the most interesting men in baseball history was Branch Rickey, the forward-thinking Hall-of-Fame front office man (he also played and managed), who among other notable contributions helped paved the way to the major leagues for Jackie Robinson. This interview with Davis J. Walsh, which occurred around 1955, resides in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Branch Rickey Papers. I will share some of the parts I found most interesting, along with some of my own commentary in italics.

On his role in bringing Robinson to the majors:  “I am deeply gratified if it has had any effect at all upon solving even in the slightest detail our race problem in this country - it has come out I think agreeably and it's good that it was done - I'm glad I did it - but I don't know how to go into the matter to discuss it with any fairness at all - there were many questions involved there, in the solution of it and it’s a very long story - I think that the negro in baseball has come into a prominent place in the life of baseball in this country and I don't believe that there will be any League in the United States that will not be willing to employ negro players within the next year or so - I look for a complete break of the color line in the Southern Association in the year 1956.”

Pushing for Robinson to join his Brooklyn Dodgers was met by a lot of resistance—from fans, those on other teams and front offices, and even within their own organization. However, the reward was great, too.  Aside from the social implications, integrating baseball opened up new avenues of attracting fans and pools of talent with which to replenish “Dem Bums.” It was a slow push, but one that ultimately paid off and set the country and professional sports on a different course.

On whether he was relieved that Robinson turned out to be a good player: “I was very positive about that before I employed him - that I had to be sure about.”

Going against the grain the way he did, Rickey had to literally be certain about the ability and character of Robinson. Anyone who didn’t meet those criteria would have completely ruined the venture. With so many people desperate to undermine his inclusion, there could be no room for doubt.

On why he pushed to integrate baseball: “The utter injustice of it always was in my mind - in St. Louis a negro was not permitted to buy his way into the Grandstand - you know that - and it has only been in recent years that he has been permitted to go into the Grandstand and of course there was no negro player in baseball - I felt very deeply about that thing all my life and within a month after I went to Brooklyn I want to Mr. George McLaughlin (President of the Brooklyn Trust Company, who lent money to the Dodgers) and had a talk with him about and found he was sympathetic with my views about it.”

The Dodgers would have never been able to survive what it took to get Robinson on the team if it they didn’t have financial backing. Money is the name of the game, and the fact that McLaughlin was willing to back Rickey’s plan despite the distinct possibility that it could have cost him is significant. It’s interesting that today almost nobody knows the role he played in this.

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