It’s become conventional wisdom that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier alone. In the past decade, Major League Baseball has reinforced this notion by retiring Robinson’s uniform number (42), renaming its rookie of the year awards in his honor and dedicating April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day. Make no mistake, Robinson forever belongs in boxes highlighting heroes in American history books, but such tokens of heroism from MLB fail to highlight the actions of another American hero – the University’s own Branch Rickey.
So now you ask, “Who the hell is Branch Rickey?” Rickey managed the Michigan baseball team from 1910-1913 and earned a degree from the University’s law school. At the professional level, he is known for developing the minor league farm system, requiring his players to wear protective batting helmets and holding annual training camps in the spring. Most importantly, though, Rickey was the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who signed Jackie Robinson to a major-league contract.
Still, you won’t find his name in too many history books. A search of the NAACP website returns no hits. Sometime in the last 50 years, history inexplicably lost sight of Rickey’s contributions to civil rights.
The major league talent pool post-World War II paled in comparison to that of the previous two decades. Baseball executives traveled across the country looking for the next Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb – so long as the players shared Ruth and Cobb’s skin color.
Branch Rickey, on the other hand, thought outside of the box and scouted The Negro Leagues, which had developed independently outside the major leagues to allow black players to showcase their talents. What he saw there were star athletes whose only apparent vice was the color of their skin. Motivated by a taste for social justice and a desire to make the Dodgers competitive again, Rickey decided to violate baseball’s unwritten rule that prohibited integration. On Aug. 28, 1945, Rickey signed Robinson to a minor-league contract, becoming the first MLB executive to sign a black player.
After dominating in the minor league-level International League in 1946, Robinson dressed for his first National League game on April 15, 1947. Together, he and Rickey faced an uphill battle. If Robinson succeeded in the majors, it would encourage other baseball executives to sign black players and, in the process, destroy baseball’s color barrier. If Robinson failed, however, segregationists would claim victory, and both men would be out of a job.
As history shows, Robinson continued his dominance at the major-league level by leading the Dodgers to the World Series in his first year and winning baseball’s first Rookie of the Year award. When Cleveland Indians executive Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby and Satchel Paige – thereby integrating the American League the following season – baseball’s color barrier rightfully headed down the path to permanent extinction.
Rickey’s quest for social justice, however, was not finished.
Rickey left the Dodgers for the Pittsburgh Pirates and drafted baseball’s first Hispanic player – Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente – in 1954. Despite a great deal of controversy, Rickey replaced popular incumbent right fielder Sid Gordon with Clemente, who would go down as one of the game’s most celebrated Hall of Famers. With scouts for the Pirates and other clubs flooding Latin America looking for talent, another one of baseball’s racial barriers was toppled.
Branch Rickey’s plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY does not do his legacy justice. It reads: “Founder of the farm system for St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers. Copied by all other major league teams. Served as executive for the Browns, Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. Brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947.”
Rickey’s plaque hangs with the Hall of Fame’s class of 1967 and, unlike Robinson’s plaque, it receives no special attention from visitors. Currently, the most prestigious award given in Rickey’s honor – The Branch Rickey Humanitarian Award – is awarded not by Major League Baseball but by the Denver Rotary Club. Rickey has a spot on the St. Louis Walk of Fame but not at Dodger Stadium’s Wall of Fame.
What shockingly inadequate remembrance for a man whose legacy embodies all that is good about the civil rights movement, our nation and its pastime.
Stiglich can be reached at email@example.com.