“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game—and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”
There are cautiously hopeful signs of racial progress in the United States in all realms of life and culture. Barack Obama, a genuine African-American with roots in Kenya and Kansas, has a fighting chance to become President in 2008. In the recent pro football playoffs, a black coach—Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers—found his championship dream thwarted by a black quarterback, David Garrard of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And one of the hit films of the Christmas holidays, was based on the true story of how a debate team from historically black segregated Wiley College in east Texas whipped a privileged white counterpart in a 1935 competition at the height of the Great Depression. The film was directed by Denzel Washington who also played debate team coach Melvin Tolson, a passionate and militant man who would make his name as a renowned poet. Washington gave a convincing performance but he was matched by Forest Whitaker as theologian James Farmer Sr, Wiley College President, who thought Tolson was too much of a firebrand. Set in the pre-civil rights South when lynching and other unspeakable indignities were realities of life, the film also featured a great turn by newcomer Denzel Whitaker, unrelated to either star. He played James Farmer Jr, who would grow up to be the national leader of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the leading civil rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s.
As a biographer of Branch Rickey, the baseball executive whose signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945 was the first salvo in the national civil rights movement that led directly to the United States Supreme Court decision in 1954 outlawing school segregation and the passing ten years later of the Civil Rights Act by the United States Congress, I couldn’t help thinking how Branch Rickey would have loved to see these developments.
One of the most memorable moments I experienced in working on my book, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), was when Mary Rickey Eckler, the eldest of his five daughters, showed me a copy of Martin Luther King’s book Stride to Freedom, autographed with his gratitude to Branch Rickey for setting the stage for his non-violent resistance to segregation movement.
It’s been over 40 years since Rickey died in December 1965 after collapsing while giving a speech about courage, physical and spiritual. But the story of the man —born Wesley Branch Rickey in 1881 to pious but poor Methodists on a hardscrabble farm in southern Ohio—who rose to deserved national celebrity is always worth remembering. Though he dropped his first name Wesley, he was imbued early on with John Wesley’s Rule about doing good all he could to as many people and at all the times and places possible. Rickey was aware that British-born John Wesley had condemned the slave trade in 1774, before the American Revolution and long before The War Between The States. “Do you never feel another’s pain?” Wesley implored. “When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow creatures… had you no relenting?”
Early in the 20th century, Branch Rickey got his first taste of what discrimination was like. As a precocious 22-year old coaching his Ohio Wesleyan college baseball team while still an undergraduate, Rickey felt the indignity when his one African-American player, Charles Thomas, was denied a room with the rest of the team while traveling to play Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. This wasn’t the Deep South but a state adjacent to Ohio. Rickey insisted that the hotel provide a cot for his player to room with his coach, but when they entered together Thomas broke down in tears, pawing at his skin wishing that somehow the stain of his color could be removed. “I never felt so helpless in my life,” Rickey remembered years later, but at bottom Rickey was an irrepressible optimist. He told Thomas that one day the situation of race discrimination would be rectified in a country built on a creed that everyone was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Rickey went on during the 1920s and 1930s to make himself a national household name in St Louis by building a team in a city with the smallest population in the major leagues into a perennial contender by developing a farm system of development where he could grow his own players and not have to buy them at exorbitant prices. But St Louis was essentially a Southern city with conservative racial attitudes and segregated seating at the ballpark. Only when Rickey moved to Brooklyn to run the Dodgers after the 1942 season did he sense an environment that would welcome integrated baseball because it was excellent baseball. Almost immediately Rickey started the search for the right kind of player to racially integrate the Dodgers, but he knew that he could not start the process until World War II was won. He never doubted the successful outcome of the war. All his sons-in-law were involved in military endeavors and if he had been younger than 60 he would have gladly served as he had done in World War I as a 36-year-old major in the chemical warfare service.
It was no coincidence that Branch Rickey’s famous meeting with the man he selected to be his race pioneer, Jackie Robinson, occurred only two weeks after the official end of World War II. In Robinson, Rickey found everything he wanted in a player to break the color line. Robinson was a college-educated athlete who had played with distinction as an equal with whites at UCLA in many sports (baseball, in fact, was the weakest link in a Robinson résumé that included national records in the long jump and All-American status as a football running back). During the war Robinson had joined the army officer corps and reached the rank of lieutenant before his discharge. That Robinson had successfully fought a courtmartial for refusing to follow orders to go to the back of a military bus was considered a positive by Rickey, who insisted that his pioneer must be a proud spokesman for his race. That Robinson could also be excessive in his racial pride was a trait not lost on Rickey, but through his formidable powers of persuasion Rickey was able to channel Robinson’s natural aggression into his performance on the playing field. Putting up with the vilest of epithets and slurs from opponents and occasionally his own teammates, Robinson in 1947 became the Rookie of the Year in his first season in major league baseball. He opened the doors wide not only for other black baseball players but also for everyone who wanted to join the movement for equality for all Americans.
There are reports that a film about the unusual partnership of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson—starring Robert Redford as Rickey and Derek Luke as Robinson—is in preparation for release sometime in the near future. Like The Great Debaters, it will be a welcome dramatization of the ongoing, difficult but always stirring story about Americans living up to their stated creed of liberty and justice for all people regardless of color or previous condition of servitude.
Lee Lowenfish’s biography Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman won a 2007 Choice award from the American Library Association. He is also the author of two editions of The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars and Tom Seaver: The Art of Pitching with Lee Lowenfish. Currently he is a lecturer in sport history in Columbia University’s graduate program in sport management.