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Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Commemorative: Breaking
Barriers

Branch Rickey

Commissioner Landis Wouldn't Let It Happen, Other Owners Didn't Want It to Happen, so It Was Up to Him to Integrate Baseball

March 31, 1997|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a horrifying thought, a fear so great that Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella talked about it only in hushed tones.

"We were so afraid, especially Jackie, that one day somebody would assassinate Branch Rickey," whispers Newcombe, as if these were those early days of integration in baseball.

"Jackie loved that man, but we thought some fool was going to do it. . . . We never wanted to talk about it because we figured if it ever gets in the paper, it gives people ideas, but it was on our mind constantly.

"We thought, 'Suppose somebody shoots Branch Rickey. What happens then? What does the new owner of the Dodgers do? Is the whole idea of integration scrapped?'

"Branch Rickey was a brave man, but if somebody had shot him back then, no telling where we'd be today.

"I'm not talking about just baseball, man, I'm talking about society."

The fears of those three black Brooklyn Dodgers apparently were grounded in fact. According to his grandson, Rickey received hundreds, perhaps even thousands of death threats after integrating baseball by signing Robinson.

Rickey, who ran the Dodgers in the late '40s, was blamed for ruining the game, for starting the civil rights movement, for corrupting society.

Branch Rickey III remembers the hate mail his grandfather received.

Rickey, however, kept quiet about it, not wanting to draw attention to the death threats. He also kept quiet about his historic achievement.

"Never once did I hear him say, 'I broke the color barrier,' " his grandson said. "Never once did I hear him say he signed Jackie Robinson. He never spoke about his role in it.

"His philosophy was that if you do something morally right, it is an obligation of yours.

"In terms of common decency, you don't go around looking for credit when you do it and extol it."

Instead, Rickey passed on a moral dictum that hung in his Brooklyn Dodger office. Today, it hangs in his grandson's office in Cincinnati:

He that will not reason is a bigot.

He that cannot reason is a fool.

He that dares not reason is a slave.

*

Wesley Branch Rickey did not need Jackie Robinson to make him famous.

He did not need the pain and heartache of being a crusader, of trying to change society's thinking in race relations.

He did not need the scorn, contempt and ridicule he got from his peers.

"When my grandfather got to the age of 62, he'd accomplished everything in baseball," Rickey III said. "He had played. He had managed. He'd had World Series teams. He was credited for being baseball's innovator. He was recognized for many areas.

"My grandfather risked everything, risked his reputation, to take this step."

Rickey was a mediocre player, batting .239 in four seasons with the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders, but he was considered a genius once he stepped into the front office. His teams, the Cardinals and the Dodgers, won eight pennants and three World Series championships from 1926 to 1949.

Rickey redefined spring training. He bought an old naval base and turned it into Dodgertown. He invented the farm system. He conceived of pitching machines, sliding pits and even the hanging rectangle of string that gives pitchers a strike-zone target that remains in Dodgertown today.

Rickey, a devout Methodist who wore black suits and bow ties, would wander the grounds and watch players practice all day.

"He had this unbelievable presence," former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi said. "He's the best baseball man with the greatest baseball mind I've ever been around."

Apparently that was not enough for Rickey.

"I couldn't face 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 I own," he once told his grandson.

"We told 3 1/2 million Negro slaves a century ago that they were free. Free for what? Free from what? Free to do what?

"Now here they are, no longer in chains, but often and in many areas with no more sense of real freedom than they had a century ago. The Negro in America was legally, but never morally, free.

"I thought, 'If the right man with control of himself could be found. . . .' "

It was time to integrate baseball, and other owners weren't willing to go along, Rickey would do it himself.

The first person he confided in was his wife, Jane. She was strongly opposed. She was in favor of integration but pleaded for someone else, someone younger, to take on the challenge.

"Why should you have to be the one to do it?" she asked him. "Haven't you done enough for baseball? Can't someone else do something for a change?"

His grandson said, however, that Rickey remained haunted by an incident when he was a 21-year-old coach at Ohio Wesleyan University.

It was April 1904, and the team went to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame. The hotel clerk refused to give a room to the team's lone black player, a catcher named Charles Thomas.

Rickey was outraged and ordered an extra cot for Thomas in his room. Then he gathered his players for a team meeting.

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