The early baseball life of Jackie Robinson that was celebrated in the recent film, 42, and which highlighted Robinson’s stormy entrance into a sport that was embedded in hateful segregation since 1900 and before, also highlighted the valor of baseball executive, Branch Rickey, known in the baseball world of that day as the “Mahatma” (or “Mr. Rickey” by those who respected him). Played convincingly by actor Harrison Ford, the film was as much a tribute to Rickey as it was to Robinson.
Prior to Robinson’s historic job interview with Rickey on Tuesday morning, August 28, 1945 in Rickey’s office at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn, he was misled by Dodger scouts to think that Mr. Rickey’s interest in him stemmed from a desire to form a team he dubbed the “Brooklyn Brown Dodgers”. Rickey wanted to keep his design to integrate baseball under lock and key, so he invented the story about this fictitious team. So, when Robinson appeared in Rickey’s office he was stunned to learn of Rickey’s true motive and that he had been chosen to undergo the baptism of fire on behalf of the black race. The drama of that meeting, while rightly upstaged by such monumental turning points as William Farel’s fiery rebuke of John Calvin when Calvin wanted to sequester himself in a life of quiet study, was as much a religious confrontation as the aforementioned. This gets short shrift today, as even the popular film glossed over the religious thrust of number 42’s meeting with Rickey.
Here’s a glimpse of that Kodak moment: When Rickey explained that he was looking for a black player that had guts, Robinson countered that he wasn’t afraid of anyone on or off the field, to which Rickey thundered, “I am looking for a ballplayer with guts not to fight back.” Rickey then reached into his desk and produced a copy of Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ. It seems that Rickey meditated on this book because it spurred him to Christian humility. He was so im-pressed with its spirituality that he even presented six copies for his six children one Christmas. So, while appealing to Robinson’s Methodist roots, he read relevant passages that would prep Robinson for the vicious reviling that lay ahead, not only from opposing teams and merciless crowds, but the icy hatred from some in the Dodger family, too. One chapter in Papini’s book particularly applied—where Christ taught: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Robinson listened nervously as Rickey, with an unlit cigar in mouth, dramatically ex-plained those words, asking again and again, whether he had the guts to continue playing baseball even if the whole baseball world spat in his face? With the flair of a John Barrymore playing belligerent baseball roles, in-cluding gutter speech and racial epithets like “nigger,” Rickey portrayed a base runner during the World Series sliding into Robinson, with spikes up, ready to draw blood. To make the confrontation as vivid as possible, he took off his coat and hit the deck like a major leaguer swiping a base. He portrayed Robinson standing his ground, and thrusting his glove into the runner’s ribs before he was called “out!” Looking up, he eyed Robinson’s black face staring him down. Then he depicted the base runner angrily punching Robinson’s cheek. Rickey then roared, “What do you do?!” Robinson quietly responded….
A Wesleyan in the Making
To appreciate Rickey’s decision to draft Jackie Robinson, we need to revisit his religious pedigree and upbringing. Branch Wesley Rickey was born and raised in a Wesleyan Methodist family in Scioto County, Ohio, in 1882. The religious zeal of his parents is mirrored in his very name, which not only includes the founder of Methodism, but Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, the “Branch.” Both Frank and Emily Rickey were church pillars, who, according to Mary Rickey Eckler (the oldest of his six children), whenever she visited her grandparents Frank would proclaim (Joshua-like) before grace at dinner time, “The Lord is the head of this house.” As a covenant child, he was not only nurtured in the doctrines of the Christian Faith, but became a prolific reader of books, among which were the New Testament, the McGuffey Reader, which he mastered, Dante’s Inferno, and Gustav Dore, a French etcher, painter, and minister of the Gospel. Dore’s depictions of storm clouds and azure skies left a permanent impression on the grandeur of God’s creation in Rickey’s fertile mind.
Rickey’s godly mother, Emily, was another paragon. One incident stamped on Rickey’s conscience was when his mother disciplined him for a transgression, probably his early inclination to cruelty. He explained: “…She took me into her bedroom, reviewed what I had done and asked me to kneel with her at the bedside.
“There I heard her ask God’s forgiveness, not for me, but for herself as a mother who had not done her duty. In return, she promised to be a better mother and not commit the sin of letting me misbehave. It was a solemn and unforgettable moment. I felt as though I had hit her, and I was thoroughly chastised.”
From Rushtown, Ohio, Rickey attended high school in Lucasville, where he sang in the Lucasville Methodist Church. After a stint of teaching in a one room school house in Turkey Creek, he entered Ohio Wesleyan University, where he played both football and baseball, and even student-coached. Following his graduation with a major in Literature, his next stop was the Texas League at Fort Worth. He so excelled in the Texas League that the Cincinnati Reds of the National League purchased his contract after only forty-one games. He became the Reds’ catcher.
In Cincinnati, Rickey underwent a crisis that dogged him for the rest of his life. When the Reds assumed his contract, they had not realized it included a provision that exempted him from playing baseball on the Christian Sabbath. When his manager, Joe Kelley, learned of the contractual exemption, he dispatched him to the owner, August Herrmann, who pressed Rickey for an explanation. Sheepishly, Rickey explained that his mother had a deep-seated reverence for the Lord’s Day and that his decision to play baseball had caused her anxiety about his future spiritual life. So, to honor her convictions and to assure her of his commitment to the Christian gospel, he vowed never to play or to set foot in a baseball stadium on Sunday. Hermann was initially wooed before his second thoughts moved him to return Rickey’s contract to Dallas. But the remarkable feature about his vow is that he concealed it from his mother! Years later, as Rickey sat at her grave in Rushtown, he “wept for the blasphemy he had caused.”1 The stigma that he was forced to make a promise to “his old lady” was never put to rest.
Haunted by Charles Thomas
Earlier, while student coaching at Ohio Wesleyan in 1904, another event occurred that would reach forty-one years into the future, to the dramatic interview of Jackie Robinson. It seems that from the first day of his entrance into Ohio Wesleyan that Branch Rickey took special interest in black athletes. This included the first player to try out and win a spot on the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, a young man named Charles Thomas. The team was on the road to play Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and Rickey made it his mission to assure Thomas that he would be welcomed at the Oliver Hotel. When it was discovered that he would not be permitted to go upstairs, Rickey tried to negotiate a deal, while persuading the management to allow Thomas to wait in his room. The management was firm, but Rickey was firmer. He arranged for an extra cot in his room, and when the management protested, Rickey de-bated and won the argument. But sadly, when Rickey joined his catcher, he found him an emotional train wreck, hand-scrubbing his hands from his wrists to his finger tips, and tears sprinkling his black skin.
“Black skin…” “Black skin…Oh!, if I could only make ‘em white!”2
The spectacle of self-racism, together with Rickey’s conviction that “I cannot face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all that I can call my own,” helped inspire the integration of Major League baseball. Yet, if truth be told, when the experiment was first launch-ed, Rickey’s coy explanation to the public was the Dodgers needed good ball-players to win the pennant. He must have known that he protested too vehemently when he told the public, “If any individual, group or segment of Negro society uses the advancement of Jackie Robinson in baseball as a triumph of race over race, I will regret the day I ever signed him to a contract, and I will personally see that baseball is never so abused and misrepresented again!”
His Early Career on and off the Field
But we are decades ahead of our story. Rickey’s professional baseball career span-ned six decades. He began his career as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders. But his career ended when he injured his throwing arm. In fact, one team stole a total of thirteen bases on him as a catcher (a dubious Major League record to this day). He also enrolled at Michigan University, where he applied to become the manager of the baseball team while he took courses in law. His jockeying included putting pressure on the school’s athletic director, Philip Baretelme by asking every alumnus that crossed his path to write letters. Finally, Baretelme caved in and summoned Rickey to his office, but told him that the position was his only to stop “those damn letters that came in every day.”
After an abortive attempt to practice law in Boise, Idaho, he re-turned to baseball in 1913, when he be-came a manager and executive.
After World War I, where Rickey served as a Major in France, he returned to baseball, this time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919, becoming President and manager in 1920. He led the Redbirds on the field for five years, until his firing in 1925, when the famous Rogers Hornsby took the helm.
While with St. Louis, he engineered the baseball farm system and became a kind of pre-General Manager of all the baseball operations. The farm system did not fare well with its critics (including the Commissioner of baseball), who thought it stacked the deck in favor of the Cardinals. Others viewed Rickey as a capitalist opportunist who created a “chain gang” to pad his bank account.
In the 1930s, Rickey’s Cardinals fielded strong teams, capped off by winning the 1931 and 1934 World Series, which showcased the rookie Pepper Martin, a Christian who was one of the first crops from Rickey’s minor leagues. The Rickey Cardinal teams were juggernauts, with the 1942 squad going 106-46 and winning the World Series.
Turning Point—the Brooklyn Dodgers
When friend Larry MacPhail of the Brooklyn Dodgers enlisted in the army in 1942, Rickey was asked to assume the Presidency and GM, ending his long stint with St. Louis. This afforded him the opportunity to integrate baseball in a city that would be far more hospitable than a southern bastion like St. Louis. As early as 1943 he spoke to the Board of Directors about the possibility of signing a Negro player, or two.
While serving as the Dodger President and General Manager, Mr. Rickey committed himself not only to build competitive teams, but sought the spiritual improvement of his players. A case in point was Dodger manager Leo Durocher, who was a special reclamation project. Durocher’s morals were such that baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler (with the help of the Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn) suspended Durocher for the entirety of the 1947 season. At issue were Durocher’s connections with gamblers and his marriage to actress Laraine Day, who gained a divorce from her husband in California where the law dictated that divorced persons must wait one year before remarrying. Desiring to remarry more quickly than the law stipulated, she secured a second divorce in Juarez, Mexico, which gave her a green light to marry Durocher. The spokesman of the Catholic Youth League, Father Vincent Powell, went ballistic and campaigned for Durocher’s scalp. Several meetings were arranged with Rickey and the Father in which traveling secretary Harold Parrot sat in as a Catholic interpreter. Parrot (a Catholic himself) wrote:
“…In those debates the Mahatma badly outpointed the priest at every turn. He kept asking if the Catholics . . . weren’t still dispensing mercy and forgiveness . . . .”3
Leo Durocher was not blind to Rickey’s mission to bring him to Christ. He wrote in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, that Rickey urged him to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and that his wife Loraine Day was suspicious of him, largely because of her religious brush with Mormonism in her early years. Dodger Hall-of-Fame announcer Red Barber wrote that while Durocher was playing for St. Louis between the years of 1933-1938 that Rickey began praying for him in early 1933 until he was sold to Brooklyn in 1938.
When a player’s performance went south during a season, Rickey sleuthed. It was not unusual for him to interview the trainer of the team since baseball players freely talked about their trysts, etc., during their rub downs. However, if nothing was accomplished here, Red Barber wrote that “then Rickey sent for the player’s wife. He would point out to the wife that they, she and Rickey, had a joint interest in the player and in his performance…that they both had an economic interest…that something was wrong with the player…that it behooved them both to get to the bottom of it, no matter what it was—money, sex, shaky marriage, alcohol, infidelity, fear, illness. Rickey would find out what was the matter, and then do whatever was indicated to straighten out the trouble. He worked to help his people. He went to enormous efforts. Many times he welcomed home the Prodigal Son.”4
Despite his positive contributions to baseball (the farm system, batting helmets, baseball statisticians, integration, Major League expansion, etc.) Rickey never rested on flowery beds of ease. From the time that he absented himself from the ballpark on Sundays to the end of his life, he suffered many hardships, even persecution. For ex-ample, Judge Kenesaw Landis, the Commissioner of baseball raged against him as “that hypocritical preacher,” that “Protestant bastard.” When managing St. Louis he was vilified by Sam Breadon, the owner, as that “Sunday School teacher.” After a few years he was replaced by baseball star Rogers Hornsby, who was the antithesis of a Sunday School Teacher. He was given derisive names like “hard shelled Methodist,” “Deacon,” and even the “Mahatma.” His players were called “Mother Rickey’s Chickens,” and he was pilloried as the “Old Woman in the Shoe.” Because of his theological gusts, his office was called “the cave of winds.” Future Dodger owner, Walter O’Malley, who wrangled with Rickey over business issues, labeled him a “Psalm-singing faker.” O’Malley as-sumed control of the Brooklyn club in 1950, he even renovated Rickey’s office on 215 Montague Street, trying to scrub-out his memory altogether. Indeed, it was a mortal sin for a Dodger employee to even mention his name! Rickey’s name was hurled down the “memory hole.”
Rickey’s decision to draft Jackie Robinson was opposed by all six of his children, his traveling secretary, his wife, the umpires, and all the owners in the Major Leagues, who outvoted him 15-1. He often stood alone even among friends. When he announced privately to his newscaster friend, Lowell Thomas, of his plan to integrate baseball, Thomas objected, “Branch, all hell will break loose!” to which Rickey responded, “No, Lowell, all heaven will rejoice!” Some of the choicest barbs against him came from the Sports’ writers, especially Jimmy Powers of the Daily News, who tagged him as “El Cheapo Rickey.” While it is true that Rickey was frugal and shrewd in business, stories illustrating his generosity could also be summoned. Yet, the “El Cheapo” tag dogged him most of his life. One apocryphal story concerned baseball pitcher, Preacher Roe, whose contract was rumored to be negotiated with Mr. Rickey’s throwing two hunting dogs into the fray. But after a few days, the hunting dogs “mysteriously” ran away.
His Clash with the Lion of Unbelief
Branch Rickey’s greatest spiritual crisis occurred when he was in his early seventies, while working for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was lunching with a churchman in Pittsburgh who told him that “hardly anybody really believes in the divinity of Jesus anymore,” and that the Apostle’s Creed was obsolete insofar as having any application to modern thought. Rickey was shaken to his boots and was unable to work as a result of it. The liberal churchman’s skepticism sent him into a depression that undermined the foundation of his belief system. The result is that it became impossible for him to pray and to render thanks to God for his daily bread. He confessed that “I feel like a stranger in my own house.” After the passage of time, he re-grouped and composed a letter to his pastor who also heard the skepticism unchallenged. Rickey rightly maintained that a minister of the Gospel could not preach the Gospel from the Bible without heartily confessing the Creed. He resigned his membership in the Methodist Church. And what is more, he re-committed himself to diligent Bible study, so that he compared himself to Zacchaeus, who by “curiosity and skepticism” climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus for himself. He thought of himself as up a tree, a 20th century Zacchaeus. Just as Zacchaeus climbed down the tree at Jesus’ command, so he came down the tree assured that Christ dwelt in his house and that “everyman is therefore a cathedral unto himself. I was able to pray again, say grace and enter my church—enter any church—thoroughly clean in heart and spirit.”5
Mr. Rickey’s spirituality is revealed in many mundane ways, too. Red Barber reported that it was ingrained in Mr. Rickey to recount Bible stories around the dinner table and that Rickey was always looking for a sermon illustration. One day he was sitting in the stands at Ebbets Field with fellow Ohio Wesleyan alumnus Norman Vincent Peale, when he pointed to an extraordinary sermon illustration involving the runner and the first baseman. The illustration was so subtle that Norman Vincent Peale was thoroughly buffaloed. When it happened, Rickey leaped from his seat, and implored, “Norman, Norman, did you see that? Did you see what just happened, Norman? There’s a sermon in that!” Peale was confused, “What happened? What did I miss?” Rickey explained, “Norman, that big fellow, he was chewing tobacco. When he hit that ball, he took time to spit, then was out by a whisker. Norman, there’s a sermon in that.”
Wesleyan to the core, in 1938 Mr. Rickey participated with 4,000 others in the two-hundredth anniversary of John Wesley’s “warming of the heart” experience at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, where he heard the reading of Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary to the Romans.
In 1953 his friend, Houston Peterson, of Rutgers University published a book of the world’s great speeches, including John Wesley’s inflammatory “free grace” sermon in which he argues Calvin’s doctrine of predestination “destroys the comfort of religion, the happiness of Christianity” and “also destroys our zeal for good works.” Not surprisingly, Rickey indicated that he was pleased with the inclusion of Wesley’s sermon.
Rickey’s tacit approval of Wesley’s sermon was symptomatic of other character anomalies, which included his opposition to all alcohol, when he himself was an avid cigar smoker, his disingenuous statements about not being a missionary to Major League baseball players, when no one “preached” the Ten Commandments (and Christ!) more often than Rickey, and even his spiritual midwifery of Jackie Robinson, who after two years in the Major Leagues was given the green light to retaliate. We wonder whether Rickey thought Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 5 to turn the right cheek had an expiration date?! Or, perhaps it was Robinson himself who decided that he would no longer abide by the original agreement? His wife Rachel, argued that by 1949 that “turning the other cheek had lost its nobility, and that the effort was chipping away at his spirit.”6 Yet, to his credit Rickey discerned problems with Jackie Robinson’s temper, even writing that Robinson was prone to “emotional outbursts,” but not labeling them (at least publicly) as “sin.” Rickey also used questionable euphem-isms, such as “Judas Priest!” when he was stunned or shaken. Yet, unlike future Dodger owner Walter O’Malley, few dared to take God’s name in vain in Rickey’s company.
Branch Rickey also left a legacy of famous aphorisms, some of which are recounted to this day. Among them were:
Concerned with the sexual virginity of his players, his interview with new players featured the questions, “Do you have a girl?” and “Do you go to church?”
A lifelong Republican, Rickey re-ferred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as “the dole system.”
On Senator Joe McCarthy, he said that “he has a good fastball but poor control.”
One of his favorite expressions, perhaps reflecting the sovereignty of God (or the will of man?), was, “Luck is the residue of design.”
Concerning work during retirement he mused that he “preferred a turbulent freedom to a peaceful slavery.”
When homerun king Ralph Kiner of the last place Pittsburgh Pirates asked for a raise, Rickey was reluctant, saying, “We finished last with you and we can finish last without you.”
When Dodger catcher Bobby Bragan said that he wanted to play every day, Rickey told him that he would sit on the bench so long that people would start calling him “judge.”
Concerning whether Admiral Doubleday invented baseball, Rickey was dubious, saying that the “Only thing Doubleday started was the civil war.”
Concerning trading players, he argued that it was better to trade an aging player one year early than one year too late.
Upon leaving Pittsburgh in 1955, a reporter tried to put the best spin on his exit, saying that now he was free to do nothing. Rickey responded: “Do nothing young man? You expect me to do nothing? Preposterous. I started out to do nothing for three days once. I never was so tired in all my life.”7
Jackie Robinson—the Climax
So, there sat Jackie Robinson, a captive audience in Rickey’s office, listening to the make-believe vitriol of this baseball thespian, who peppered him with a series of “So-what-will-you-do-then?” questions. But Robinson boyishly said, “I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey. That it?” Rickey nodded and the tense climax subsided. Rickey was convinced that Robinson “was a Christian by inheritance and practice.” From that moment Jackie Robinson was destined for what Rickey opined to be baseball “hell.”
The Final Years
In 1950 when Mr. Rickey sold his interest in the Brooklyn Dodgers, he arranged one final meeting with his Dodger players, which resembled a camp-meeting in the early Methodist Church. Rickey “the Sunday School teacher” lectured on the Deity of Christ and tried to instill the commandments of the Savior into their hearts and minds. It was more a farewell sermon than a farewell, but it revealed Mr. Rickey’s belief that the performance of his players depended on their spiritual health.
One of the players who gleaned the most from Rickey’s tutelage was Dodger pitcher, Carl Erskine, who was told that faith in Christ is like “a red thread that runs through every part of people’s lives . . . .” Erskine drew comfort from that advice when standing on the mound in a pressurized situation, looking down on the red stitches of the baseball.8
After baseball was integrated and in Rickey’s last years in Pittsburgh and then again St. Louis, he was prevailed upon by Oklahoma coach Don McClanen to help form the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in 1954. McClanen had made several abortive attempts to contact Rickey, and finally as he and his wife drove through Pittsburgh, he telephoned Rickey’s office and was invited in for a “five minute” interview. The meeting mutated into a five hour session in which McClanen was lovingly “drilled” about whether the FCA would be truly Christ-centered! Rickey did not want Christ to be upstaged by the vainglory of athletes who were not in tune with the Christology of the organization’s central purpose.
The final inning of Rickey’s life featured him arising from his sickbed in St. Louis to speak at the Daniel Boone Hotel in Columbia, Missouri. His topic was courage. The year was 1965 and Rickey’s intent was to distinguish physical courage from moral courage. Before he could get much past his first sentence, which was “And now I’m going to tell you a story from the Bible about spiritual courage,” he suddenly fell back to his chair and said, “I don’t believe I can continue.” He then slipped to the floor, unconscious. Those were his last words. He finished his pilgrimage on December 9, 1965, leaving behind a legacy of Christian wisdom and unparalleled discernment of baseball talent. In recognition of his contributions, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
Earlier we said that Rickey’s parents probably took his name from the Branch-prophecy of Isaiah 11. But another interpretation is possible. They may have named him after Jesus’ words in John 15,9 “I am the Vine, ye are the branches….” If so, Rickey was the most productive executive in baseball history. He bore much fruit, even unto 83 years of old age (Psalm 92:14).
1 Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 36
2 Ibid., 216
3 Red Barber, 1947—When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball, (Da Capo Press, Inc, 1982), 102
4 Ibid., 95
5 Mann, 300
6 Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson—An Intimate Portrait, (New York: Abrams, 2009), 88
7 John C. Chalberg, Rickey and Robinson, (Wheeling , Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc), 173
8 Carl Erskine, Tales from the Dodger Dugout, (Unavailable: Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2004), 4
9 The John 15 possibility was suggested by Lee Lowenfish in his Branch Rickey—Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 15-16