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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

The motives
Rickey had several reasons to sign Robinson
By By Steven Goldman/

Branch Rickey, right, with Preacher Roe, is the main reason the Brooklyn Dodgers won six pennants and one World Championship from 1947 to 1956.
"Next to Abraham Lincoln, the biggest white benefactor of the Negro has been Branch Rickey."
-- Grantland Rice, sportswriter

"As a matter of fact I do not deserve any recognition from anybody on the Robinson thing. It is a terrible commentary on all of us that a part of us should not concede equal rights to everybody to earn a living."
-- Branch Rickey

"The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot."
-- Branch Rickey

"If the machinations of Rickey's mind had been observed through a super--powered fluoroscope showing the brain cells arriving at conclusions by serpentine excursions into labyrinthine passages, medical science might be amazed."
-- Fresco Thompson, Dodgers executive

If, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design, then design is the bastard child of circumstance. A revolutionary may have the inspiration and the will, but if he is in the wrong place at the wrong time, even an idea which could shake the world will wither on the vine.

Case in point: Rickey was a moral man, a Christian in the best sense of the word, by acclamation one of the smartest and canniest men ever to, as he said, "[devote] his entire life and all his energies to something so cosmically unimportant as a game."

Rickey had deeply felt the injustice of baseball's color line as early as 1904. In the 1920s, Rickey rose to be general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, then as now one of the game's premier franchises. In those years Rickey was signing and developing more talent for his team than had any general manager in the history of the game. He was, perhaps, in a position to make some of that talent black. Rickey marshaled his tremendous energies, took a good look around him -- and gave up.

"I had made that effort in St. Louis," he said later, "only to find the effective opposition on the part of ownership and on the part of the public, press -- everybody." Rickey also noted that seating in St. Louis' Sportsman's Park was segregated, even though there was no official team or municipal policy in place. St. Louis was not a city that would easily break with Jim Crow.

"If I was in authority," Rickey lamented, "I would have changed that." But he was not in authority. Rickey put integration on the back burner and proceeded with his extraordinary career. Rickey, who lived 83 years, spent his entire executive career in the National League, creating championship teams in St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh (though in the case of the latter two, the championships came after he had moved on, the residue of his design).


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Feature Lineup
Schedule/ Archive
Award winners
Jimmy Rollins and Juan Pierre accepted Legacy Awards last week from the employees at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. More>>

The motives
Branch Rickey had several reasons for signing Jackie Robinson to a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Historian Steve Goldman has the details. More>>

Segregated Baseball: A Kaleidoscopic review
While the very existence of the Negro Leagues was necessary because of the racial divides in the United States, black baseball not only survived -- it excelled. More>

Traveling show
Barnstorming was common place in the Negro Leagues. More>

He had started in the game as a catcher and occasional outfielder, playing with the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders (Yankees). In 1907, his last season as an active player, Rickey played 52 games as an outfielder, catcher, and first baseman for the then-Highlanders. Rickey was coming off of an arm injury, which helps explain how on June 28 the Washington Senators set a record by stealing 13 bases against him. Years later a Dodgers employee commented that that was the last time anyone had stolen anything on Rickey.

That experience, as well as a .182 batting average, were enough to convince Rickey, who earned a law degree, to retire and coach baseball at the University of Michigan. Rickey was never enamored with the idea of practicing law, and in 1913 he joined the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) as executive assistant. He quickly moved up to general manager and subsequently managed the team on the field.

In 1917 he moved to the Cardinals, where he also served as both manager and general manager. In 1925, after a few indifferent finishes, he gave up the field manager's job and became a full--time executive. Even before that, his great invention, the farm system, was beginning to work its magic for the Cardinals, and there would be a pennant and a World Series victory over the Yankees in 1926, followed by five more pennant winners and three more champions.

Rickey's relationship with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon steadily deteriorated over the years, and in late 1942, Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers, acquiring the title of president and 25 percent of the ballclub. Almost immediately, his mind returned to the subject of integration. First, though, he had to ask some of the same questions he did in St. Louis. "Admitting that racial equality in the sport must be an eventual fact, is this the right time to proclaim it in baseball? Is it too soon? Would the Negro cause -- and he has a cause -- be thrown for a loss, as the cause of temperance was thrown back at least fifty years by the premature acceptance of national prohibition?" By the time Rickey asked these questions during a public talk in April, 1945, he had already settled on the answers -- Dodgers scouts were, in secret, fanning out across the United States and Caribbean in search of the best African-American ballplayers. That October their search culminated in the signing of Jackie Robinson.

It would be a vast oversimplification to say that the rest was history. The color line was broken in Brooklyn not only because the time was right for men of Rickey's ideals to take action, though that was certainly part of it -- World War II had changed many minds about civil rights; if African Americans could fight for their country then they should be full participants in the victory of freedom that they had helped win -- but mainly Rickey succeeded in Brooklyn where he had failed in St. Louis because the Dodgers provided one additional impetus that had been missing before: economic necessity -- with political necessity finishing a close second.

Rickey was a practical man, and monetary concerns always informed his creative impulses. Consider his invention of the farm system. In the early part of the 20th century, teams in New York and Chicago swam in money. St. Louis did not. At that time young players were not developed by the major league teams but were purchased on the open market from minor league clubs that were owned by independent operators. Rickey found himself constantly being outbid for the best talent. The problem of staying competitive with the "big market" clubs while spending significantly less started his mind working.

"The farm system, which I have been given credit for developing," Rickey said later, "originated from a perfectly selfish motive: saving money."

Rickey figured that if the Cardinals could buy up minor league clubs, they could control prospects from the moment they entered organized baseball, when they were unproven and thus inexpensive. The Cardinals could also make sure that the players received the best instruction, which increased their chances of developing, and the big-league club would have accurate scouting information all the way through the process.

The Cardinals would have the pick of the litter, with excess players being used as trade bait or sold for cash. Best of all, Rickey figured the farm system would probably make enough money to pay for its expenses, which meant that the whole thing wouldn't cost the Cardinals a dime.

No one had thought of this before. It was a revolutionary and controversial idea in 1920. It was years before all Major League teams accepted that it was the best way to do things; it was only when Rickey started putting a great product on the field every single year that the idea began to catch on. Now, of course, it is the standard way that baseball operates.

Rickey's decision to bring Jackie Robinson to the majors was more complicated, but also had an economic aspect. A devoutly religious man, Rickey had strong feelings about the equality of men and the injustice of the color line. In 1904, while coaching the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, he had seen the effects of Jim Crow first hand. The team had gone to South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame. Ohio Wesleyan's one black player, Charles Thomas, was told he could not stay at the team hotel. Rickey's impassioned argument on his player's behalf earned a compromise: Thomas could share Rickey's room. Rickey remembered Thomas crying in the incident's aftermath, obsessively ringing his hands. "Damned skin… Damned skin!" Thomas moaned. "If only I could rub it off."

"That scene haunted me for many years," Rickey said later, "and I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas."

Rickey's eyes were wide open, but as the St. Louis experience showed, he had to find the right time to act on his feelings. He had to amass the personal prestige and power to pull off such a move. He had to survive the first commissioner, Judge Landis, who was not a proponent of integration. He had to be in the right place. More than four decades went by. Then came the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As much as Brooklyn loved its Dodgers, the team didn't make very much money. Rickey's farm system helped put talent on the field, but in terms of revenues they still weren't on an even level with the Yankees and the Giants. Rickey looked around for an edge. "The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race," he said. "The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot."

Branch Rickey said a lot of things -- he was a baseball executive, evangelist, and Shakespearian actor all rolled into one -- and so his statements, both the humanitarian and the coldly practical, should not be taken at face value. He had a generous spirit but was notoriously flinty with his players.

"Two things Mr. Rickey likes are money and baseball players," said Chuck Connors, "but he never lets them get together." He was both lofty and mean. He was famous for being able to pull the wool over the eyes of his fellow GMs when conducting trade talks.

"There's only one way to get the best of that Rickey," Casey Stengel once said. "You let him talk for three hours on the strong and weak points of the players he wants to scoop. Then when Branch says, 'Is it a deal?' you snap 'No!' and walk out on him."

Sportswriters called his office "The Cave of Winds" because of his grandiose pronouncements. The case of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball invoked all of his qualities. He was a humanitarian whose high ideals and actions had a pleasing mercenary by-product. It was Brooklyn's need for that by-product that made integration possible for Rickey to accomplish.

In other markets, economic factors actually argued strongly against integration. Baseball in the late 1940s, although enjoying an attendance boom that came with the return of the stars (and the spectators) from World War II, was almost fatally misaligned. Teams like the Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators had long been run as family sinecures, underfinanced and incompetently managed, complacent and unentertaining. Boston and St. Louis were called upon to support two teams and clearly could not. There was no baseball west of the Mississippi, yet the success of the Pacific Coast League, which came within a whisker of achieving Major League status on its own, combined with demographic trends in the booming nation, highlighted the game's anachronistic geographical orientation.

Ironically, it was the Negro Leagues that stepped in to bolster the weaker franchises, renting out their stadiums on Major League off days as well as some of their minor league venues. The Yankees claimed to receive upwards of $100,000 a year in Negro Leagues bookings. In cities like Washington, where the Negro League games often outdrew the major league Senators, the extra revenue was all that was keeping them afloat.

One team not profiting by the Negro Leagues was the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1943, Rickey contacted William Leuschner, who had a monopoly on Negro League bookings in the New York City area. Rickey asked for the same agreement that the Yankees and Giants received and was refused. This too gave Rickey a push in the direction of desegregation.

There was also a political angle in New York City missing elsewhere in the country. Here there was actually a growing clamor for the integration of baseball. In 1945, New York State passed the Quinn--Ives Act, banning discrimination in hiring. This was followed closely by a Fair Employment Practices Act. Quinn-Ives created an investigatory committee to investigate discriminatory hiring practices, and one of the committees first moves was to call on baseball to hire black players.

Simultaneously, New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia made the subject of integration in baseball part of his reelection campaign, and began calling for an end to the color line. Committees were formed; some of them counted Rickey among their members. He wasn't much for public agitation, at least not at this time; he just wanted to be able to judge the prevailing winds. Having already decided to integrate the Dodgers, he did not want the politicians to get too far ahead of his own timetable.

As it was, they nearly did, forcing Rickey to abandon plans to corner the market on Negro ballplayers. Jackie Robinson was not meant to be a lone pioneer; Don Newcombe and Sam Jethroe, at the very least, were supposed to accompany him into the national spotlight. The politicians caused Rickey to announce his only signing before it appeared that he had been forced to integrate. Rickey may not have wanted credit for handing to Jackie Robinson what should have been his to begin with, but he did want credit for having the initiative to do so.

For the rest of his long life Rickey was an outspoken advocate of equal rights, but when it came to Jackie Robinson he alternated between humility and pride. This was because of a conflict in Rickey between the pious priest and the promoter. He knowingly embodied both of these qualities, and thus was aware that the Robinson signing occurred at the intersection of morality and commerce. Rickey was both a righteous man and a first class baseball operator; the former could not have thrived without the latter, and he knew it.

Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for and the Attic of Baseball for Your questions and comments welcomed at This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.