Wesley Branch Rickey
- Bats Left, Throws Right
- Height 5' 9", Weight 175 lb.
- School Ohio Wesleyan University
- Debut June 16, 1905
- Final Game August 25, 1914
- Born December 20, 1881 in Flat, OH USA
- Died December 9, 1965 in Columbia, MO USA
Branch Rickey was a baseball player, manager, and executive who was the driving force behind two of the most important changes in baseball in the 20th Century: the development of the farm system and the end of baseball's color line. Rickey was named to the baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments. His brother Frank Rickey was a scout for many years and his grandson Branch Rickey III was a long-time minor league executive. Rickey was also a lawyer.
Few would have predicted a HOF career watching Rickey as a player. After a college career at Ohio Wesleyan, he was an unspectacular major league catcher and outfielder whose most notable accomplishment was allowing a record 13 stolen bases in one game. After a short career playing with the 1905 and 1906 Browns and 1907 Highlanders, Rickey returned to college to earn a law degree. Rickey was the head coach at OWU in 1903-1904 and 1907-1909. While working on his degree at the University of Michigan, Rickey also served as that university's head baseball coach.
In 1913, Rickey returned to the Browns, this time as an executive. He served as manager at the end of the 1913 season. The Browns crept out of the cellar under Rickey in 1914 and 1915, but they remained in the second division. Rickey's most important contribution to the team was probably his signing of George Sisler, a former player for Rickey at Michigan who had been declared a free agent because of irregularities in his initial signing. Rickey was fired when Phil Ball, former owner of the Federal League St. Louis Terriers, was allowed to buy the team in 1916.
Rickey was out of baseball from 1916-1918, and served in the military during the First World War. He returned to St. Louis baseball in 1919, this time with the Cardinals. As president and manager, Rickey brought the team to its first sustained success in over 30 years; the 1921 and 1922 teams were the first since the 1890 and 1891 versions to finish with winning records in consecutive seasons.
Rickey also began to work on the rudiments of baseball's first farm system. Starting in 1921, the Cardinals began buying interests in minor league teams. With ownership of the minor league teams, the team was able to control the development of players from the time they were signed as amateurs until they were ready to play in the majors. While the farm system was originally seen as a way of reducing the cost of acquiring players, much of its success was attributable to the improved instruction the players received along the way. Rickey was deeply committed to education and constantly worked to improve methods of teaching young players how to play.
Cardinals' owner Sam Breadon correctly recognized that Rickey was overstretching himself by trying to run the front office and manage the team simultaneously. After unsuccessfully trying to convince Rickey to step down as manager, Breadon finally replaced him with Rogers Hornsby early in the 1925 season. Rickey reputedly told Breadon that firing him as manager would ruin him. Breadon replied that he was doing Rickey "the greatest favor one man ever did for another." Time would prove Breadon, not Rickey, correct.
Freed from his duties as field manager, Rickey was able to devote his intelligence and energy to the job of building the Cardinals into a dynasty. In 1926, Hornsby led the Cardinals to their first pennant since 1888, and their first post-season triumph since 1886. The Cardinals growing farm system continued to churn out talent, and they team remained an on-field success. They won the NL pennant again in 1928, 1930, 1931, and 1934, with World Series victories in 1931 and 1934.
Rickey's development of the farm system did not go unchallenged. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis saw the farm system as deeply damaging to the fabric of baseball. He felt that it turned the minors from independent entities that played meaningful games and had real pennant races into vassals of the major league teams who played glorified exhibitions. Landis repeatedly challenged what he viewed as unfair practices by major league teams, and the farm system earned his ire more than anything else. Landis twice released more than 70 Cardinals minor leaguers because he felt that the Cardinals had unfairly buried them in the minors.
Either because of Landis's actions or because other teams began to copy Rickey's farm system, the Cardinals were less successful in the second half of the 1930s. They didn't win another pennant until 1942, when they edged out the Brooklyn Dodgers, 106 W to 104, in a fantastic pennant race. The 1942 Cardinals then triumphed over the Yankees 4-1 in the World Series. It would be Rickey's last pennant and last season with the Cardinals.
After the 1942 season, Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Brooklyn position became open when Dodgers General Manager Larry MacPhail, Rickey's protege and friend, left the team to serve in the Second World War. Rickey was eager to take the position, both because it gave him the opportunity to become part owner of the Dodgers and because his relationship with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon was increasingly strained.
Rickey followed much the same course with the Dodgers that he had with the Cardinals. While other teams were reluctant to sign young players who were likely to be called off to the war, Rickey remained aggressive in signing them. He understood that the war would be over eventually and aggressive signing would ensure that the Dodgers would have the best talent when it ended. He also began a quiet process of scouting for African American players. After several years of scouting, Rickey announced the signing of Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers AAA farm team, the Montreal Royals, on October 23, 1945. He became a part-owner of the Dodgers in 1944, when he joined John L. Smith and Walter O'Malley in purchasing shares in the team, the trio eventually become sole owners by the end of 1945. However, he eventually had a falling out with O'Malley, who gained controlling interest in decisions affecting the team by enlisting the support of Smith, who did not want to get involved in the day-to-day management of the team.
Rickey's motivation for signing African American players has been debated ever since. Rickey and his supporters emphasized his personal commitment to social justice. He was a religious man who saw segregation as contrary to Christian principles. He had also been deeply affected by the racist treatment of an African American teammate while he was in college. Detractors have characterized Rickey as a cynical opportunist who saw Negro League players as an untapped pool of cheap talent and his move to sign the first African American players as an attempt to get the first choice among them. The argument is somewhat beside the point. Rickey was clearly motivated by both altruism and profit, and the great success of integration is that it allowed him to combine the two. Even owners who lacked Rickey's idealism were forced to integrate to be successful.
Whatever his motivation, Rickey's decision to sign Robinson was a tremendous success. Robinson won the International League MVP with Montreal in 1946 and the NL Rookie of the Year award with the Dodgers in 1947. The Dodgers were equally successful, winning the NL pennant in 1947 and again in 1949. By then the team had added Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Dan Bankhead to the roster.
Walter O'Malley forced Rickey out as head of the Dodgers in 1950, but he quickly returned with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was not the quick success with the Pirates that he had been with the Dodgers or even the Cardinals, but he did build up the team's farm system and was responsible for the Pirates acquiring such greats as Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Dick Groat, who led the team to victory in the World Series after he left the team. The oddest part of his term in Pittsburgh was Rickey's attempt to trade Pirates star Ralph Kiner. The Pirates owners were reluctant to let Rickey trade their greatest star and top box-office draw, so he launched a campaign to destroy Kiner's value in the eyes of ownership and fans to make him tradeable.
Rickey left the Pirates in 1955. He returned to baseball in 1959 in connection with the proposed Continental League. The CL was not successful itself, but the threat of a rival third major league forced MLB's hand and drove the 1961 and 1962 expansions. After the CL, Rickey ended his career in baseball as a special advisor to Cardinals' owner August Busch.
In 2018, the Library of Congress digitized his papers and made them accessible to the public through its website. They include hundreds of scouting reports on players, some destined to become famous but the majority forever mired in obscurity.
On Running a Team
- Luck is the residue of design.
- The development of a major league club on any permanent basis should involve planning not only for one succeeding season but for the permanency of a proud position in all succeeding seasons.
- You can't solve everything in a minute. Make time your ally. Delay sharp action.
- You must know ahead of time who is failing. You must take risks.
- It's a marvelous thing in the tactics of our game to continually take your adversary by surprise. It almost justifies any violation of the orthodoxy of tactics.
- The way it is generally practiced, the hit-and-run loses many more games than it wins.
The Farm System
- The farm system, which I have been given credit for developing, originated from a purely selfish motive: saving money.
- The money part aside, the system offered a selection of better players. We knew our own material; we had followed it for several years. We brought it along to each level.... We controlled the instruction and discipline, and we had a much better idea of a player's major-league ability than if we had gone blindly into the open market.
- The very first thing I did when I came to Brooklyn in late 1942 was to investigate the approval of ownership for a Negro player. There was a timeliness about the notion. The Negro in America was legally but never morally free.
- I had to get the right man, off the field. I couldn't come with a man to break down a tradition that had centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people, north and south, unless he was good.... I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time and even now, was the wrong man off the field. It didn't matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental-- righteously subject to resentments. 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. That was the greatest danger point of all.
- They call you an extramist if you want integration now-- which is the only morally defensible position. To advise moderation is like going to a stickup man and saying to him: "Don't use a gun. That's violent. Why not be a pickpocket instead?" A moderate is a moral pickpocket.
Others On Rickey
- I got a million dollars worth of free advice and a very small raise. --Eddie Stanky
- There's only one way to get the best of that Rickey. You let him talk for three hours on the strong and weak points of the players he wants to scoop. Then when Branch says, "Is it a deal?" you snap, "No," and walk out on him. --Casey Stengel
- Mr. Rickey had a heart of gold, and he kept it. --Gene Hermanski
- Mr. Rickey was the forerunner of the management side that brought about the players' union organization. With his parsimonious attitude to the baseball player, he did more than any other person to bring about the union. --Ralph Kiner
- As a student of technique, he was simply unchallenged.... Other people gave instruction. Mr. Rickey knew. --Leo Durocher
- It occurred to me that if I let myself get trapped in a room with Rickey, there was a strong possibility that he would still have (the players I wanted), as well as my promissory note, and I would end up with two guys I had never heard of. --Bill Veeck
|St. Louis Browns Manager
|St. Louis Cardinals Manager
|Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager
Year-By-Year Managerial Record
|1913||St. Louis Browns||American League||5-6||8th||St. Louis Browns||replaced George Stovall (50-84) and Jimmy Austin (2-6) on September 17|
|1914||St. Louis Browns||American League||71-82||5th||St. Louis Browns|
|1915||St. Louis Browns||American League||63-91||6th||St. Louis Browns|
|1919||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||54-83||7th||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1920||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||75-79||5th||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1921||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||87-66||3rd||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1922||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||85-69||3rd||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1923||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||79-74||5th||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1924||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||65-89||6th||St. Louis Cardinals|
|1925||St. Louis Cardinals||National League||13-25||--||St. Louis Cardinals||replaced by Rogers Hornsby on May 31|
- John J. Burbridge, Jr.: "Ralph Kiner and Branch Rickey: Not a Happy Marriage", in Cecilia M. Tan, ed.: Steel City Stories, The National Pastime, SABR, 2018, pp. 66-69.
- Roger Kahn: Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball, Rodale, New York, NY, 2014. ISBN 978-1623362973
- Lee Lowenfish: Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2007.
- Arthur Mann: Branch Rickey: American in Action, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1957.
- Andy McCue: "Branch Rickey", in Charles F. Faber, ed.: The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals: The World Champion Gas House Gang, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2014, pp. 250-255. ISBN 978-1-933599-731
- John J. Monteleone, ed.: Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book: Wit and Strategy from Baseball's Last Wise Man Macmillan, New York, NY, 1995. (This book is the source of the above quotations)
- Andrew O'Toole: Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh: Baseball's Trailblazing General Manager for the Pirates, 1950-1955, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2000.
- Murray Polner: Branch Rickey: A Biography, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2007 (originally published in 1982).
- Joe Posnanski: "Rickey's uproarious, revealing scouting reports", mlb.com, April 12, 2018. 
- Branch Rickey and Robert Riger: The American Diamond: A Documentary of the Game of Baseball, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 1965.
- Michael Shapiro: Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel and daring scheme to save baseball from itself, Times Books, Macmillan, New York, NY, 2009.
- Leverett T. Smith: "A Man of Many Faucets, All Running at Once: Books by and about Branch Rickey", in The National Pastime, SABR, Volume 28 (2008), pp. 53-62.
- Lyle Spatz: "Managing the 1947 Dodgers: The 'People's Choice'", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 42, Number 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 63-66.