Branch Rickey

The honorific The Mahatma combined respect for Rickey’s baseball sagacity with amusement at his pontifical manner and florid speech, which gave him the air of a con man playing a parson. He could have been either, but essentially he was that traditional American type, the sharp trader. The basis of his success was a nearly infallible eye for baseball talent. Over and over again, he saw the potential in raw youth (George Sisler, Dizzy Dean), brought hidden qualities to light (Billy Cox, Preacher Roe), and calculated precisely the productive time left in a veteran (Dixie Walker, Joe Medwick).

For the discovery and nurture of such talent he elaborated the primitive device of “farming out” into a network of 32 minor league clubs controlling a “chain gang” of some 600 players. Their quality was so high that the parent club, the once-floundering Cardinals, became a National League power, and so numerous that at one time some 65 Cardinal graduates could be found playing in the majors. As the organization grew under Rickey’s direction, he sustained it with a handpicked faculty of managers, coaches, and scouts to give the youngsters big-league polish. It was a complete change of purpose and focus for the minor leagues, and it was fought by Commissioner Landis for its effect on the competitiveness and independence of minor league clubs. In 1937 Landis released 91 Cardinal farmhands, who were property of St. Louis in a way that is now the norm, but seemed threatening to organized baseball at the time. But the benefits for major league teams were obvious, and too tempting to ignore; within a decade, Rickey’s idea had been universally adopted.

Moving on to the Dodgers, who would become the Cardinals’ challengers and successors, he created the spring-training complex at Vero Beach, where players by the hundreds could be instructed, evaluated, and assigned. And he encouraged such innovations as batting cages, pitching machines, batting helmets, and a string outline of the strike zone rigged over home plate for pitchers working on control.

Rickey’s all-seeing eye enhanced his knack for trades, for he always knew precisely the players he wanted and exactly the players he was prepared to give up. Add to this his psychological ploys and circumlocutory argument, and his trading partners often departed shirtless, but persuaded he had done them a favor. Perhaps the eye also prompted the most significant action of his career: destruction of baseball’s persistent discrimination against blacks. For however noble his motives, he was undeniably the first beneficiary of the change. It certainly was a brave move to sign Jackie Robinson, breaking the silently-upheld color barrier that had existed since the 1880s. But by exploiting the Negro Leagues as a new source of talent, Rickey built a dynasty that won the NL pennant seven times from 1947 through 1956.

Rickey was not much of a ballplayer himself, although he came to the Reds in 1904 well-recommended as a catcher. A youthful vow to his mother would not allow him to suit up on Sundays, however, or even carry his gear to the depot if it was a travel day. Manager Joe Kelley, a no-nonsense old Oriole, cut him before he ever caught a game. The Browns and Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees) tried him as a backup catcher until an injured throwing arm ended his playing career. At New York, he was behind the plate on a day Washington stole 13 bases.

By 1913 he had coached at the University of Michigan (where George Sisler was a pitcher), earned a law degree, and taken a front-office job with the Browns. Toward the season’s end he replaced George Stovall as field manager. His record was well under .500, and he never got along with Phil Ball, who took over the Browns in the maneuvering that divided the Federal League spoils. In 1919, after brief military service, Rickey became president and field manager of the Cardinals. Soon he began his long and profitable partnership with hardheaded Sam Breadon, the automobile dealer turned baseball magnate.

The Cardinals were chronic losers, with two third-place finishes as their finest achievements since 1892. The cashbox was empty. The team was wearing used uniforms. Breadon, now president, made a public stock offering to raise capital. Rickey, now vice president, made his first investment in a minor league farm team. Branch also managed for seven seasons, again slightly under .500. After finishes between third place and seventh place, Breadon ousted him as manager in favor of a harder head, Rogers Hornsby, who promptly took the squad Rickey had assembled to the first of many Cardinals pennants and World Championships.

Rickey was now a man of prominence. Yet with success came other qualities less easy to fathom. The jowly lawyer, with his bushy eyebrows, bow ties, and big cigars, was a slick article, an ambiguous personality. As manager he had arranged substitutes for Sunday games, usually Burt Shotten, who had been with him on the Browns and would turn up again in Brooklyn. Cynics used to say there was a vantage point outside Sportsman’s Park where Rickey could watch the game through field glasses, technically not on the premises, but happy enough to profit from the doubleheader crowds who were. He neither cursed (“Judas Priest” was his strongest expletive), nor did he drink, and he was a frequent and moralistic speaker at boys’ clubs and YMCAs. Yet he played baseball’s cozy gentleman’s agreements to the limits in waiving players, he diddled his minor league rosters, and double-talked his players into contracts for stingy salaries. In this, of course, he was not unique, just more sanctimonious.

He was equally successful in Brooklyn in the 1940s, crowning his achievement with the skillfully manipulated introduction of Jackie Robinson. He was eventually squeezed out of the picture by Walter O’Malley, but even after moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers continued to be successfully run according to his principles. In 1950 he undertook to put new life into the Pirates, but the Mahatma’s magic was gone. After five doormat finishes, Joe L. Brown stepped in to take his place. However, Rickey did succeed in making the batting helmet standard gear during his time in Pittsburgh.

In 1959 Rickey launched an effort to form a third major league, the Continental League. The majors reacted with alarm. They could not confront the new venture directly without raising antitrust concerns, so they preempted the new league’s prime franchises in the expansion of 1961-62, an expansion Rickey had long advocated. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967 by the Veterans Committee.