The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York is hallowed ground for baseball fans worldwide. In the halls of this institution the names of the greatest players to ever play the game are enshrined and honored for people from around the world to come and marvel at. With well over a century of professional play, the list of names has grown long and the people who remember these people in their primes are being lost to time and age. This being the case, there are many in the Hall of Fame who have become a history lesson to those who now love and study America’s Pastime.
It is interesting to note then, that some of the individuals in the Hall of Fame are not there for their role as a player; not everyone there is a Mickey Mantle, a Lou Gehrig, or a Babe Ruth. Some are there for more seemingly mundane, although in reality, extraordinary reasons. Wesley Branch Rickey is one of those players.
Indeed, he is not in the Hall for his role as a player, but rather as a Pioneer of Baseball and for his role as an executive; legendary for his run as President and General Manager of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Throughout his time at these institutions, Branch Rickey would oversee the development of two of the defining characteristics of modern baseball, one of which remains an incredibly important event in the annals of not just baseball history, but American history itself.
The role that Branch Rickey would take following his departure from the Major Leagues as a player and his service during World War I was such that it has continued to shape baseball to this day. In a period where The Babe and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis seem to dominate the historical narrative and the Black Sox of 1919 legendarily besmirched the game, Branch Rickey’s idealism and tenacity would see baseball develop into what we know today over the first half of the 20th Century. Indeed, Branch’s role would be one of innovation and social justice. His development of the farm leagues gave baseball a strong source from which to pull developing players, and his innovations as far as training and safety have helped protect players and improve their performance since Rickey’s death in 1965. Still, his most significant contribution to the game, and the one for which he is most remembered, is his decision to break the color barrier as the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and allow black player and legendary shortstop Jackie Robinson to play alongside his white peers. Branch Rickey’s contributions to baseball simply cannot be understated, and yet his role as a manager and innovator have been overshadowed in the minds of fans for years despite the innovations and sense of fairness he brought to the game.
Ricky’s love for the game began early. Born in Ohio in the late 1800s, Rickey would play for his local team in Lucasville until his stint as a student at Ohio Wesleyan College. It would be here that he would begin to hone the skills that would one day take him to the Majors despite initial attempts to master academic subjects like Latin (Polner 31-33). It was Rickey’s desire though, for money to pay for school that would ultimately lead him to sign with the Portsmouth Navvies for $25 a game and ultimately prevented him from playing college baseball anymore now that he had accepted money for playing. Eventually, playing would take a back seat to his education and Branch would go on to play professionally for the St. Louis Browns in the 1905 and 06 seasons and Proto-Yankee New York Highlanders in 1907. Still, it would seem that achieving academically was something Rickey desperately wanted, and he left the Majors to return to school after that 1907 season in order to complete a Law Degree. While attending University of Michigan, he would also coach the Baseball team through the 1913 season, giving him executive and coaching experience that he would need later in his career (Rogers 7,11).
All this to say, Branch Rickey is undoubtedly one of the most academically dedicated players and managers to ever be involved with baseball, and it could be argued that his own academic past would be one of the things that would shape the ways in which the Baseball draft would be conducted in the future and heavily influenced the way he would develop the St. Louis farm team system one he became the GM for the Cardinals. Indeed, the farm system that Rickey would develop while serving with that team would lead to the adoption of that system across the Major League, with minor leagues serving not only part-time players and fans of the game far from the distant home cities of the Major Leagues, but also the players that one day hoped to don a Cardinals, Giants, Yankees, or Reds jersey themselves and take the field in one of the great cathedrals of sport that dotted the American landscape.
It would be this contribution then, of the development of the farm system and assisting Judge Landis in an overhaul of the draft rules of baseball that would be Rickey’s first lasting impact on the game of baseball. This says nothing of the distaste Landis had for the farm system of the time, nor does it speak to the idea of Leagues outside the National and American Leagues becoming relegated to minor league status in the coming years. Indeed, it should be noted here that other major league teams like the Cubs under Wrigley explicitly stated that other teams would not be used as talent farms for the Cubs, something the Angels of the Pacific Coast League were somewhat afraid of during the 1926 season after being purchased by the legendary Cubs owner (MacKey 110).
Rickey’s prolific development of the modern farm system had begun in the early 1920s when he realized it would be impossible for the Cardinals to compete with other teams in the majors for talent given that the market in that city was oversaturated (being shared with the Browns) and that the talent in America was gravitating towards the coast. Knowing this, Rickey convinced the Cardinals to begin buying up minor league teams in order to use those teams as a means of developing talent that could one day come to St. Louis as Cardinals (Alexander 22). This proved a successful strategy as the Cards managed to dominate the 1926 season and win the World Series and get to the big game again in 1928 although they lost to a New York Yankees team stocked with some of the best players that team had or has ever fielded. There is no shame in losing to Babe Ruth.
Even as The Great Depression slammed the United States with poverty and want, Branch Rickey and the Cardinals would continue to acquire and develop minor league teams for the Cardinal’s exclusive use throughout the 1930s. By 1938, with the worst of the Depression behind the country, the Cardinals owned or had wringing agreements with 30 teams and control over 732 players… much to the chagrin of Commissioner Landis (Alexander 239).
Despite Landis’ displeasure at this system, it proved to be an excellent one for developing players and in modern times has been adopted by literally all of the Major League teams in the United States and has been emulated in baseball playing countries worldwide. The farm system even ‘saved baseball’ by some accounts since their association with Major League teams insulated them from income lost when games from the Majors began being televised and attendance and ticket sales began dropping off. Today, there are 256 minor league baseball teams scattered across the country and in markets that could simply not support a Major League team. This then, is one of the most enduring legacies of Branch Rickey’s baseball career. Yes, he also introduced batting helmets, and cages to the game, protecting players and allowing them to practice hitting more quickly and without a catcher (thus relieving the catcher of an onerous duty as well!) and this alone would be enough to ensure Branch Rickey’s place in the Cooperstown shrine to baseball. Yet something else was on the horizon, something that would shake not only the core of baseball, but the heart of American consciousness as well and absolutely ensure that Branch Rickey would find a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
To fully understand the importance that the act Branch Rickey would undertake in the spring of 1947, something must first be said of the state of Baseball in that year; that something being that it was exclusively a white man’s game in the major leagues. No African American player played in the Major Leagues and indeed, there was a league specifically for the black players who played the game. The Negro Leagues themselves were not lacking for Major League talent, it was just that segregation and Jim Crow kept black players from being signed to Major League teams despite their ability. Even as World War II ended, a war which had seen the worst actions overt racism could cause in the world, black players only got a token tryout from the Boston Red Sox (with no intention of actually hiring the players) only to appease the mayor of their host city. This changed when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the scene of the Majors (Foster 56-57).
The Author of The Forgotten League: A History of Negro League Baseball calls Branch Rickey ‘an innovative owner… constantly experimenting with new methods that might give him a competitive edge over the competition’ (Foster 57). This assessment is accurate and given the death of Baseball’s consummate segregationist, Kenesaw Landis, in the preceding years, to Rickey it likely seemed the perfect time to break the color barrier and tap a new market of players that could help the Dodgers get back in form after years of disappointing the fans of their home borough.
When Jackie Robinson started at first base then, on that day in 1947, it meant that not only was there new talent for the Dodgers that would make them real competitors in the coming years winning multiple pennants and even the 1955 World Series. It was also the fruition of ideas about justice and fairness that Rickey had developed over the years, to include those that he spent as Wesleyan as a teenager before his Pro-Baseball debut with the Navvies all those years before. Even though the Methodist Church was at war with itself during this time period over segregation, Branch Rickey would do his part to see an unsegregated America. While some sources frame his choice to sign and play Robinson as a purely financial and competitive decision, which would certainly be in line with his personality, multiple sources including Branch Rickey’s own obituary note him as a lifelong United Methodist and a devout proponent of integration not just from a social standpoint, but a religious one as well (United Press International). With the debut of a black player on the field, Branch Rickey would cement himself as a legend in baseball. Though he had already shown his value to the game in developing and modernizing it throughout the first half of the 20th Century, it would be this act that would ensure his placement in the Hall of Fame and leave a lasting legacy in baseball to this day.
It is not for the visitors then, that Branch Rickey’s name appears in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, but for the legacy of baseball that he so impacted. Without Branch Rickey, there would be no farm system, and though integration of the game would have come eventually, it would have come later and perhaps in a personage other than Jackie Robinson, depriving the budding Civil Rights movement of one of its heroes and America of one of the greatest players to play the game. It must be understood then, that although the Hall of Fame bears the names of the greatest players to ever play, it also bears the names of some men who were simply middling players, but contributed something to the game far greater than any home run record or batting average, something more than pennants won or runs batted in; they contributed a systemic change to a game that has come to be so closely tied to the American spirit that is lumped in with Apple Pie when describing stereotypically American things. Branch Rickey is one of those men. Having been a decent catcher and middling player overall, he still sits among the Baseball Greats as a man who indelibly changed the game that Americans so love.