For players slipping and sliding on the icy sidewalk outside Ray Fisher Stadium while leaving practice on Wednesday, the words “Branch Rickey Classroom” on the stadium wall might have been easy to miss. But inside the classroom –– whose walls are adorned with murals documenting Rickey’s contributions to baseball –– the team has learned extensively about his legacy.
Rickey is best known for integrating Major League Baseball with the signing of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and the invention of the farm team system. His four years spent coaching Michigan’s baseball team from 1910 to 1913 are often forgotten.
“I don’t know if there’s a better pioneer for our game,” said current Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “So to have him on our wall and as the namesake for our classroom, to know that he coached here from 1910 to 1913 and went on to make such an impact in the game, is just a major source of pride and inspiration for our players and for me.”
Rickey’s frustration with racial prejudice was evident from early in his career. While coaching at his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, Rickey was disgusted to find out that the South Bend, Ind. hotel the team was staying in that night was refusing African-American player Charles Thomas a room. Rickey quickly arranged a cot for Thomas to sleep on in his own room.
In his time with the Wolverines –– during part of which he balanced his coaching duties with a full law school courseload –– he continued to harbor a commitment to equality that would be on display throughout his long career.
With February being Black History Month, Michigan baseball’s legacy in equality is especially prominent in the team’s mind. And Rickey is only part of the story.
Long before Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and helped break Major League Baseball’s modern-era color barrier, Michigan alumnus Moses Fleetwood Walker became one of the first African-American professional baseball players in 1884 upon signing with the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings. Walker attended Michigan Law School from 1881 to 1882 and played in the Wolverines’ 1882 season, leading the once-beleaguered squad to a 10-3 record with his strong hitting and catching. His brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, who played at Michigan in the 1883 and 1884 seasons, eventually joined him in Toledo.
“The team was very interested to learn about the Walker brothers,” Bakich said. “That they were among the first African-Americans to play baseball makes them stand out in Michigan’s history.”
After Moses Walker left the Blue Stockings in 1889, the league’s directors agreed to no longer offer contracts to Black players. No players of color would again play in the major leagues until Robinson’s signing in 1947.
106 years after Branch Rickey left Ann Arbor, Bakich tries his best to live up to his legacy.
“You know, the first year I was here, there were no minority players on our team,” Bakich said. “Maybe this is just a personal philosophy or preference, but I just feel that at this school, especially given its legacy, our roster should look like the United States of America.”
That approach has been reflected in the dedicated effort made by Bakich since his arrival in 2013 to recruit from diverse backgrounds. Michigan’s team today is far more diverse than it was seven years ago with six African-American players
“There are so many outstanding players of color often hidden in poor communities who just aren’t able to play on those expensive travel teams or make their rounds on the summer circuit,” Bakich said. “So when you can find those guys and target those guys and have kids from all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. … I think it’s a win not only for them and their families but also for our program and for everyone on our team, which is why we recruit the way we do.”
Rickey graduated from the University’s law school with highest honors and would often use his legal knowledge –– a rarity among MLB managers –– to his and his teams’ advantage. Upon leaving Ann Arbor in 1913, he recommended the stadium’s current namesake, Ray Fisher, to replace him. At the time, The Daily bid him a fond farewell:
“(Rickey) leaves with a sterling record behind him, and a host of friends to remember him. … Above all he taught clean ball, gentlemanly tactics, and clean living.
“… A gentleman, a true sportsman, and a man, he will long be remembered by those who love and help Michigan athletics.”