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Happy Birthday, Branch Rickey, Groundbreaking Baseball Executive

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 15, 2023

Branch Rickey was a brilliant and innovative baseball executive who built championship teams and created the farm system. His legacy extends far beyond baseball, however; his 1947 signing of Jackie Robison—the first black ballplayer in the modern major leagues—left an indelible mark on American society.

Branch Rickey’s Early Days

Wesley Branch Rickey was born Dec. 20, 1881, in Little California, Ohio, the second of three sons born to Emily Brown and Jacob Franklin Rickey. His parents were pious Methodists who instilled in him a strong Christian faith.

In 1901, Rickey attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where he played on the school baseball team. To earn extra money in the summer, he played on a local semi-pro team, but doing so cost him his college eligibility. The Ohio Wesleyan coach told Rickey to sign a statement saying he didn’t play professionally, but Rickey refused to lie.

Rickey took over as a coach at OWU and continued playing professionally, reaching the major leagues in 1904. He was released without playing a game, however, when he refused to play on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. He returned to the majors in 1905 and played parts of three seasons with the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders before suffering a career-ending arm injury.

Rickey retired with a mediocre .239 batting average, with three home runs and 30 RBI. His playing career over, Rickey attended law school at the University of Michigan, where he also coached the baseball team. He joined the front office of the St. Louis Browns in 1913 and had an unsuccessful stint as manager in 1913–15.

Rickey’s Work as a Baseball Executive

Sources in this Story

  • The New York Times: Branch Rickey, 83, Dies in Missouri
  • Baseball Reference: Branch Rickey Statistics
  • Time: The Old Brain
  • Time: The Mahatma
  • Library of Congress: Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet
  • American Heritage: Branch Rickey, Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman: An Interview with Lee Lowenfish
  • Hardball Times: The Branch Rickey Pirates
  • Library of Congress: Breaking the Color Line: 1940–1946
  • National Baseball Hall of Fame: Branch Rickey

Rickey went across town to the Cardinals in 1917, before serving a year in the U.S. Army during the end of World War I. When he returned to the Cardinals in 1919, he assumed the role of president and manager. Though his work as manager continued to be sub-par, he excelled as an executive.

He began buying minor league teams to provide a supply of talent for the Cardinals; at its peak, the Cardinals’ farm system included 38 teams and hundreds of players under contract. He gave up his manager’s job in 1925 and the following year the “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals won the first of six National League pennants under Rickey’s control.

Rickey was known for always having a cigar in his mouth, though he abstained from drinking and cursing. He frequently spoke of his Christian faith and was a famous storyteller. He earned the nickname “The Mahatma” for his faith and skilled management.

Rickey moved to Brooklyn in 1942 to take control of the Dodgers. It was here that he would change baseball and society forever. At the time, baseball executives had an unspoken agreement not to sign black ballplayers. Rickey had the intention to break the color barrier, an idea he called his “great experiment.”

“As a great devotee of the Protestant work ethic, Rickey was upset that the aftermath of slavery had led to the creation of a black underclass that wouldn’t take a good white Protestant attitude toward work and, if it did want to, had no chance to rise in the world because of racism,” said Rickey biographer Lee Lowenfish. “These principles were bedrock to Rickey, but he also was a canny baseball businessman who saw great profits and perennial pennant contention from signing Robinson and other black players.”

Rickey looked for a player who would be strong both on and off the field: “I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load,” he said in a 1956 speech.

The man Rickey signed was Jackie Robinson. Robinson’s talent on the field and grace off it cleared the way for other black ballplayers, and helped inspire the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

Rickey remained with the Dodgers until 1950, winning two pennants. He ran the Pittsburgh Pirates until retiring in 1955, ending a career in which he revolutionized the general manager position.

In addition to his work in creating the farm system and integrating the game, Rickey established the first permanent spring training facility, hired the first statistician to study baseball statistics, and was the first executive to order his team to wear batting helmets.

Rickey also created the caricature of the shrewd, cigar-chomping GM. St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Red Smith summed up Rickey as a “player, manager, executive, lawyer, preacher, horse-trader, spellbinder, innovator, husband and father and grandfather, farmer, logician, obscurantist, reformer, financier, sociologist, crusader, sharper, father confessor, checker shark, friend and fighter.”

Read a 1955 Sports Illustrated interview with Rickey.

The Rest of the Story

In retirement, Rickey became a public speaker. In 1965, he collapsed during his induction speech at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He remained unconscious for nearly a month before dying on Dec. 9, 1965.

Rickey was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967 for his front-office work. Rickey’s legacy is celebrated today in the form of the Branch Rickey Award, awarded by the Rotary Club of Denver to the Major League player who personifies “service above self.”

The Man & His Work

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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