Born in Ohio in 1881, Branch Rickey had a modest career as a baseball player before becoming an innovative figure in the sport's management. In 1919, he designed the farm system of training and advancing players on which Major League Baseball would come to rely. In 1942, he was named general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he broke the long-standing race barrier in 1945 by signing Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues (Robinson made his major league debut in 1947). Rickey went on to become a prominent civil rights spokesman, and he remained a larger-than-life figure in the baseball world until his 1955 retirement.
Branch Rickey was born on December 20, 1881, in Stockdale, Ohio, and was raised in a strict religious setting—one that would become a distinguishing trait of his later baseball career. A natural athlete, when he was 19, Rickey enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University, paying his way by playing semi-professional baseball and football. After graduating in 1904, he joined the Dallas baseball team in the Texas League, and was picked up at the end of the season by the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. He was quickly dropped from the team, however, when he refused to play on Sundays.
Between 1906 and 1907, Rickey was catching for the St. Louis Browns and the New York Yankees, compiling an underwhelming .239 batting average, which would become his lifetime average, as his spot behind the plate for the Yankees would be his last as a player.
In the Front Office
Rickey went back to school, graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1911, and two years later, he found himself back in baseball, this time as the field manager of the St. Louis Browns. Once his stint with the Browns was up, he began a 25-year association with the St. Louis Cardinals—first as president (1917-1919), then as field manager (1919-25), and finally taking on the general manager role (1925-1942).
Only two years in with the Cardinals, Rickey, spurred on by the team's lack of success, persuaded the team's owner to buy an interest in two minor league teams so that St. Louis could have first shot at their up-and-coming players. This created the first baseball farm system, and revolutionized the way players were cultivated and brought into the big leagues. The Cardinals won nine league championships with players signed under Rickey's guidance. With this huge success behind him, Rickey left the Cardinals in 1943, and signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers as president and general manager. He would hold both of these posts until 1950.
The Color Barrier Is Breached
While Branch Rickey's influence on the game of baseball at this point was important, what he would do while with the Dodgers would go down not only in sports history, but American history. In 1945, he founded a new league for black players, who had been fully excluded from organized baseball beyond the various segregated leagues (there are no records showing that Rickey's new league ever played any games, however). While he was criticized for encouraging continued segregation in sports, Rickey's overriding idea was to scout black ballplayers until he found just the right one to bring about the desegregation of the major leagues.
Rickey found the right player in October 1945: Jackie Robinson, an infielder. He signed Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, later saying, "There was never a man in the game who could put mind and muscle together quicker than Jackie Robinson." After playing with the Dodgers' minor league organization, the Montreal Royals, Robinson made his debut in Major League Baseball in 1947, thereby breaking the sport's color barrier. Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant in his first season with the MLB team, and earned the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947.
Later Years and Legacy
Robinson's success led other owners to seek talented black players, and by 1952, there were 150 black players in organized baseball. The last of the Negro Leagues disbanded soon after, their marquee players all having been brought into the desegregated major leagues. Rickey was officially deemed the leader of the revolution, and his vocal support of civil rights extended beyond the baseball field for the rest of his life.
Rickey finished out his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, serving as was vice president, general manager and chairman of the board. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
Adding to his legacy, Branch Rickey is portrayed by Harrison Ford in the 2013 film 42, which depicts the story of how Rickey and Jackie Robinson changed the baseball landscape forever in the 1940s.
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