Branch Rickey was a hymn-singing, Bible-quoting Methodist who delighted in advising hard-drinking, foul-mouthed ballplayers to model their lives after that of the Savior. He was a right-winger who deprecated Franklin Roosevelt and deplored the very idea of a free lunch. And he performed the single most progressive act in the history of American sport when he brought Jackie Robinson into the major leagues.
In recent years there has been a tendency to minimize the significance of Rickey's bold move—to say that it was self-serving, i.e., he hoped to increase attendance among black fans, or that he merely anticipated a trend and wanted to get the jump on his competitors.
The latter point is pure poppycock. There was no trend in sight. True, breaking the color barrier was an idea whose time had come, but only Rickey had the vision and guts to implement it. It would be an understatement to say that "many" or even "most" of the other club owners were against integrating the game. There were 15 of them, and they all signed a resolution to that effect. The fact is that without Rickey the black man's entry into organized baseball wouldn't have come until years later.
Rickey, who died in 1965, was a baseball genius whose life, career and foresight are celebrated in two recent books: Branch Rickey by Murray Polner (Atheneum, $14.95) and Harvey Frommer's Rickey and Robinson (Macmillan, $13.95). The former is a conventional biography whose author had access to Rickey's papers and other relevant documents, and it's the better for it. Frommer's book is sort of a dual biography, with emphasis on the demise of Jim Crow baseball. It's less comprehensive on Rickey but tells more about Robinson's life before and after his Dodger days.
These aren't great books. They're middling books, undistinguished but worthwhile because of their subjects. Robinson's contribution to sports is obvious and well known, but unless youngsters read these books, they may have no conception of the mental and physical abuse he endured.
As for Rickey, he was an innovator from the start. Long before his great days in Brooklyn, he devised and developed the first farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals. This earned him the enmity of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who accused him of trying to take away the independence of the minor leagues and thereby destroy them. Landis' objections are now ironic in view of the fact that the minors would be dead today if it hadn't been for the affiliations that almost all minor league teams have had with big league clubs.
Rickey had his faults. He was often arbitrary, was inclined to be smug about his straitlaced code of behavior and was a very slow man with a dollar. Frommer relates that at a reunion of the '34 Cardinals, the old Gashouse Gang, Rickey praised them as men who loved the game so much they would have played for nothing. To which the great Pepper Martin replied, "Thanks to you, Mr. Rickey, we almost did."
But Rickey was also a superb judge of undeveloped talent, a master trader and a brilliant administrator. And he will be honored as long as the game is played, for none of these reasons but because he made baseball what it had always claimed to be: the national game.