Branch Rickey was a baseball player and executive who is probably best remembered for breaking the color barrier signing Jackie Robinson. This was his greatest feat but if you look closely at the man himself, it is incredible what an innovator he was. Rickey was born in Portsmouth Ohio. After high school he went on to play catcher for the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team. Rickey graduated from Michigan Law School in 1911. He played both professional baseball and football. An interesting football story was when Rickey played for the Shelby Blues in a league called the “Ohio League” he became friends with a player named Charles Follis who was known as “The Black Cyclone” and was the first black professional football player. It is said that after watching Follis run almost the length of the field for a touchdown, Rickey was influenced forever that anyone talented should be able to play sports regardless of ethnicity.
Starting in 1913 Branch rickey was the field manager for the American League St. Louis Browns. He moved onto to the National League St. Louis Cardinals in 1917 and eventually became general manager in 1925. While serving as gm, Rickey began to get frustrated not being able to develop players while losing out to other teams who signed top players from the minor leagues. Rickey convinced the Cardinals owner Sam Breadon to purchase stock in two minor league teams, Houston (Texas) and Fort Smith (Arkansas). This was the beginning of a new way of running a major league team. He had the vision to realize teams would have to keep replacing their starters and the more players under contract getting experience playing, the better chance for success. Rickey developed the farm system as a feeder to the Cardinals minor league teams.
Between 1930 and 1934 St. Louis won 3 National League pennants (1930, 1931 & 1934) and 2 World Series titles (1931 & 1934). In 1931, “Rickey’s Cardinals” got the nickname the “Gashouse Gang.” They won 101 games and and the World Series. Some of the more known names on this team were: Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher and Pepper Martin.
Rickey’s tenure with the Cardinals was coming to an end. His relationship with owner Sam Breadon deteriorated. They butted heads and couldn’t agree on a lot of the daily decisions it takes to run a ball club. On top of that, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis disliked Rickey. He began to investigate every detail of the way Branch Rickey ran the front office of the Cardinals. He then determined that the St. Louis Cardinals had violated rules by colluding to control minor-league franchises and their players. Owner Broaden was upset and embarrassed by this and didn’t want Rickey part of the St. Louis Cardinals anymore. Branch Rickey ended up leaving the Cardinal organization despite helping the organization win six NL pennants and four World Series titles from 1926-42.
Rickey left St. Louis for Brooklyn and created the very first full-time spring training facility in Vero Beach Florida. In the spring of 1945, Rickey knew that integration would be coming to major league baseball. He and Gus Greenlee, the owner of the original Pittsburgh Crawfords founded the United States League (USL) for Black players and he was actually criticized for encouraging continued segregation in sports because of this separate league. There are no records indicating that the league ever played any games; however, it served as a front that allowed Rickey to quietly scout Black ballplayers for one who could lead the desegregation of the major leagues.
Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, an infielder with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, to a contract. Robinson would play for the Montreal Royals of the International League in 1946 before joining the Dodgers in 1947, breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier and starting his Hall of Fame big league career. The Dodgers that Rickey built, featuring Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, won six NL pennants and one World Series title between 1947 and 1956.
Ricky bounced around after Brooklyn to the Pittsburgh Pirates and then back to St. Louis. He was credited as the first to encourage the use of the batting cage, pitching machines and batting helmets. When he was with the Pirates, all the players began wearing helmets when hitting by order of Rickey. He tried to mandate the players wear the helmets in the field but this never caught on. He also set up sand pits to practice sliding. In an article Who Invented Tee Ball it was said that Rickey, in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s may have invented the first batting tee. Supposedly he got the idea using a radiator hose from a car motor which may have been a model for today’s tee. Supposedly Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and other Dodgers honed their skills from this manmade batting tee.
Another innovation by Branch Rickey was the use of complex statistics in baseball. In fact some historians consider him the influencer of today’s baseball analytics. It is said that he was the first to hire a statistician and the man he hired, Allan Roth convinced Branch Rickey the importance of on-base percentage as opposed to batting average. He also had the vision to see how effective the platoon system can be and began to encourage the use of righty pitchers against righty hitters and lefty pitchers against lefty hitters late in games.
Branch Rickey was a man of conviction who never attended a Sunday baseball game because of his devotion to his religion. The most memorable achievement associated with Branch Rickey will always be the breaking of the color barrier and signing Jackie Robinson to a contract. But looking deeper, the vision he had trying to have players reach their full potential using different ideas from physical props to statistics, shows he was a man ahead of his time. Branch Rickey should get more notoriety and appreciation for the things he gave baseball. His place in the baseball Hall of Fame is very much deserved.
Marty Schupak has coached youth sports for 25 years. He has written 11 books and produced 26 sports instructional videos. His is the founder of T-Ball America.
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