This article was written by Joe Marren
This article was published in the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers essays
Wesley Branch Rickey — even the name is wonderfully quirky and unique. And the man himself lived up to the matchlessness of his name. He was lionized and beatified or criticized and buried, depending on who was writing about him. But which Rickey was on stage in Brooklyn in 1947? The answer is easy: All of them. And it is the press that will guide the tour of that season.Wesley Branch Rickey — even the name is wonderfully quirky and unique. And the man himself lived up to the matchlessness of his name. He was another Lincoln; he was Simon Legree; he was a saint and he was a grievous, unrepentant sinner; he was one of baseball’s best executives and innovators, or he was one of the worst of them to his bosses in St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh. As Ed Fitzgerald wrote in a November 1947 profile of Rickey in Sport magazine, “Rickey is about as uncomplicated as a Rube Goldberg contraption for feeding yourself in bed.”
Rickey was “The Mahatma” or “El Cheapo,” depending on who was writing about him. After signing Jackie Robinson in 1945, and then after promoting him to the Dodgers in ’47, Rickey was both praised and damned at the same time; there was no in-between. Shortly after his death on December 9, 1965, he was lionized and beatified. A few years later, the revisionists looked at his feet of clay and questioned his integrity. Now the neo-revisionists are re-examining Rickey and his legacy. Since Rickey is already long buried, they will praise him and resurrect the good about him that was interred with his bones.
But which Rickey was on stage in Brooklyn in 1947? The answer is easy: All of them. And it is the press that will guide the tour of that season.
The first stop is a January meeting in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Rickey told the assembled major-league owners that he intended to promote Jackie Robinson that spring. The owners were shocked and voted 15–1 against the move, thereby putting Rickey and Commissioner Happy Chandler on notice. There was nothing the owners could do to prevent Rickey from doing what he felt was best for his club, but it did take steel nerves on Rickey’s part to continue with his plan. What may have worried the other owners was a 1946 report by Yankees boss Larry MacPhail that said owners should brace themselves for poor black fans driving away prosperous white fans.
A second stop takes place on the wintry night of Tuesday, February 5, at the Carlton YMCA in Brooklyn, where Dodgers executive secretary Herbert T. Miller had gathered together “30 distinguished Brooklyn Negroes” to meet Rickey, according to an article in an October 1951 issue of Sport magazine. They probably expected to hear that Jackie Robinson would be promoted to the parent Dodgers after a successful 1946 season with the club’s top farm team in Montreal. After all, Robinson had successfully made the switch from shortstop to second base, batted .349, stolen forty bases, and helped the Royals win the Little World Series. But it was a vintage Rickey performance because the crowd didn’t get what it expected.
He bluntly told his guests that the biggest threat to Robinson’s success, if he was promoted, would be that “the Negro people themselves will ruin it. . . . We don’t want what can be another great milestone in the progress of American race relations turned into a national comedy and an ultimate tragedy. If any individual group or segment of Negro society uses the advancement of Jackie Robinson in baseball as a social ‘ism’ or schism, I will curse the day I ever signed him to a contract, and I will personally see that baseball is never so abused and misrepresented again.”
Yet for some reason the audience of community leaders and other respectable middle-class citizens bought Rickey’s idea. They knew that society would be watching and judging. So they hastily started a campaign based on the phrase “Don’t Spoil Jackie’s Chances” and urged restraint and moderation among Robinson’s fans.
Why did they buy it when millions identified with Robinson? In him, they saw their own chances at gaining that promised equality too long denied. Perhaps they realized that this first step was a cautious one, fraught with danger both personal for Robinson and monumental for America. Or perhaps they were simply mesmerized by Rickey’s blunt assessment of the nation’s psyche. As Ed Fitzgerald wrote in a profile of Rickey published in a November 1947 issue of Sport:
Branch Rickey is a man who possesses tremendous magnetism. Measured in terms of candlepower, his personality lights up a whole room. There’s an intensity about him that thrusts itself upon your imagination and kindles a fire of interest in you. When he speaks, you find yourself leaning forward to catch every word. There’s something about the way he talks, easily but deliberately, that makes you certain the things he’s saying are of deathless importance. Whatever that elusive quality is that enables one man to dominate a group of his fellows, Rickey has it.
Not all the ballplayers who played for Rickey, or the sportswriters who covered those players and those teams, would completely agree with Fitzgerald’s assessment. (Enos Slaughter supposedly once said that Rickey had to open the vault to get a nickel change.) But it is a measure of the man that he could indeed make people talk about him, curse him, and debate his tactics during his life and decades after it ended.
What Rickey didn’t tell his audience that wintry night in Brooklyn was that he had a plan. The first step was to move spring training away from segregated Florida to sites and games in more tolerant Cuba and Panama. Along the way, Rickey thought, Robinson’s outstanding play in camp and in exhibition games would naturally lead to the Dodger players clamoring for him to be promoted. (Robinson had a .625 batting average and also stole seven bases that spring.)
But there were two immediate obstacles (not counting what would happen if Robinson didn’t perform up to expectations): Rickey wanted Robinson to switch to first base because the Dodgers were weak there; and some players threatened to organize a petition against Robinson’s potential and expected promotion.
The plans also called for manager Leo Durocher to demand that Robinson be called up for the good of the team. That part of Rickey’s plan failed miserably since Commissioner Chandler suspended Durocher for the season on April 9 for a host of indiscretions. The suspension had a polarizing effect on baseball. As Chandler put it:
A good many New York sports writers, no fans of mine anyhow, jumped to the defense of their fallen hero. . . . Time magazine made an accurate summation of that situation saying: “Commissioner Chandler had done the seemingly impossible; he has made Leo Durocher a sympathetic figure.” Chandler wrote on page 219 of his autobiography that “I’ll have to confess, I didn’t think anybody could do that.”
Another point of view was summed up by Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich: “Maybe the punishment was in excess of the crime, but who can shed a tear for Durocher?”[fn]Rudy Marzano. The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s; How Robinson, MacPhail, Reiser and Rickey Changed Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 134.[/fn]
Durocher was first replaced by Dodger scout, coach, and one-time minor-league manager Clyde Sukeforth. But Sukeforth was just a stopgap as Rickey searched for someone to guide the Dodgers for the season.
The names of former Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and former Giants player-manager Bill Terry were mentioned before Rickey decided to offer the job to old friend Burt Shotton, who had retired from his coaching job with the Cleveland Indians a few years previously. The sixty-two-year-old Shotton’s last full season as a big-league manager was with the seventh-place Philadelphia Phillies in 1933. Rather than wear a uniform again, Shotton said he would manage in his street clothes, which meant he could not go on the field. That was a crucial decision since it essentially meant that Robinson would not have someone as fiery as Leo Durocher arguing with the umpires for him.
Just a day after Chandler’s bombshell, Rickey stealthily slipped in one of his own. During the top of the sixth inning of an afternoon exhibition game on April 10 in Ebbets Field—against Montreal—he announced: “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals. He will report immediately.”[fn]Anthony R. Pratkanis and Marlene E. Turner. “Nine Principles of Successful Affirmative Action: Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and the Integration of Baseball,” in The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and the American Culture, 1997 (Jackie Robinson), edited by Peter M. Rutkoff. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), 152. Also found in Out of the Shadows; African American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson, edited by Bill Kirwin (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 195; and Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentlemen (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 425.[/fn]
Robinson had to endure a storm of protest about his promotion to the parent club. And some of the hostility came from fellow Dodgers. A spring-training survey in The Sporting News said the team was “mainly antagonistic” toward calling up Robinson.[fn]Marzano, p. 135.[/fn] It was Rickey who headed off the nascent rebellion from within the ranks. While it may have been naïve on his part to believe the team would clamor for Robinson’s promotion in order to bring them a share of any potential World Series wealth, Rickey nevertheless realistically told the rebels they could play with Robinson or be traded.
Two of the more disgruntled players were reserve catcher Bobby Bragan and popular outfielder Fred “Dixie” Walker. During a heated meeting with Rickey in spring training, Bragan said he wanted to be traded. Walker also asked to be traded in a letter to Rickey on March 26. Walker’s wish almost came true; a deal with Pittsburgh was agreed to in principle before Rickey vetoed it. With both stars and reserve players discontented, Rickey had to act decisively. Lester Rodney, the sports editor of the Communist party’s Daily Worker, credited Rickey with standing up to the pressure from the players:
“Kirby Higbe was traded immediately. . . . And when Carl Furillo said . . . ‘I ain’t gonna play with no niggers!’ Rickey snapped back, ’You don’t want to play with no niggers? Then you can go back to Pennsylvania and pound railroad ties for $15 a week. You’ll never set foot on a big-league baseball field again.’ Carl played. They all played.”[fn]The quote is from a biography of Lester Rodney, Press Box Red; The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports, by Irwin Silber.[/fn] A postscript must be noted here: By the end of the 1947 season Furillo, Bragan, and Walker had come to admire Robinson.
It was that sort of hyper-attention from the press that Rickey was continually adapting to in Brooklyn. Ambivalent press coverage dogged Rickey and his teams throughout his long career in baseball. In 1947, coverage started out positively with a May editorial in Crisis magazine that gave Rickey all the credit for “shrewdly picking” Robinson in 1945 and then wisely delaying the announcement of his promotion to the big leagues until just five days before the season opened. Then, just as Rickey had asked in his February 5 speech at the Brooklyn YMCA, the magazine also asked “Negro newspapers” to provide balanced coverage and not dwell solely on Robinson. Just as Rickey asked in that speech, the editorial concluded by urging all Americans to respect Rickey’s “judgment and courage” and Robinson’s “skill and courage.”
In its September 22 issue, Time magazine ran a story about Robinson’s winning the Rookie of the Year award from The Sporting News. The article did more than praise Robinson; it also labeled Rickey “the smartest man in baseball.” The cover story gave credit to Robinson for enduring “the toughest first season any ballplayer has ever faced.” But it also praised Rickey for hiring Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith to travel with the team as a companion for Robinson, and for setting up “how-to-handle-Robinson” committees of prominent African Americans in National League cities.
Rickey wrote that he “picked” Robinson both for his play on the field and for his strength and character off the field. He asked Robinson not to retaliate when jeered. Yet the support committees would seem to have been ineffective, for between the positive Crisis editorial near the start of the 1947 season and the laudatory article in Time near the end of that season came the slings and arrows of less complimentary screeds. (Supposedly the character of Judge Goodwill Banner in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural was partly based on a Rickey habit of talking over people’s heads and being too theoretical.)
And Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News did a lot of slinging, branding Rickey “El Cheapo” around 1945. It got so bad that in 1946 Rickey considered suing Powers. An article in Sport in November 1947 assessed the situation:
Powers misses no opportunity to sink another shaft into Rickey. It can hardly be denied that the Dodgers’ chief executive is an inviting target. Sometimes it seems he delights in furnishing critics like Powers with more ammunition.
Nothing Rickey does convinces Powers, who, of course, doesn’t want to be convinced. He has more fun, and keeps his readers more excited that way.
Rickey didn’t try to mislead the press, said his friends and allies both in the press and in the Dodgers’ office, he just had a tendency to over-answer and not everyone could follow his logic. And yet there were probably times, his biographers wrote, when Rickey probably “preferred not to be understood.”[fn]Leverett T. Smith Jr. “A Man of Many Faucets, All Running at Once; Books by and about Branch Rickey,” in The National Pastime; A Review of Baseball History #28 (Cleveland, Ohio: Society for American Baseball Research, 2008), 53-63.[/fn] Baloney, wrote New York Daily News writer Dick Young in a January 1953 issue of Baseball Digest:
Branch Rickey, though he reflects an aloofness in his relations with the press, is profoundly aware of the newspaper criticism directed against him. And yet much of the adverse comment written about Rickey results from his condescending approach to the press. Writers not so much resent his evasiveness, but rather his insufferable belief that he is getting away with it. Rickey, while talking to newsmen, creates the impression in his audience that he is thinking: “I can wrap these lame-brains around my little finger with my rhetoric.”
Few men have the nimble brain of Branch Rickey, including the newsmen whom he tries to deceive, but baseball writers are proud of the trust which is often placed in them. Rickey, inordinately suspicious, fails to project this feeling of trust. He substitutes arrogance and scorn, and as a result receives the “bad press” he cannot understand.
One of the reasons he got some bad press was his seeming contradictions and chutzpah in claiming the Robinson story as his own. For example, Commissioner Chandler felt slighted in having his role in Robinson’s breakthrough ignored and he blamed Rickey:
During our hours together out in the cabin I kept getting the impression that Rickey felt he was God Almighty, and that he was somehow the Savior of the black people. He tried his best—and this I know—he and his whole outfit moved in to give him the full credit for breaking the baseball color line. They wanted to keep everybody else, including me, out of it. But of course he couldn’t have done it without my approval. When he came down to Versailles [Kentucky], he had two chances: slim and none. But I did it for him, made it possible. I never could understand why he always cut me out of it, every time he mentioned the Jackie Robinson decision. I was surprised, and I suppose somewhat hurt by his attitude.[fn]Albert (Happy) Chandler with Vance H. Trimble. Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks: The Life and Times of Happy Chandler (Chicago: Bonus Books, Inc., 1989), 229.[/fn]
Also feeling slighted was the Daily Worker, which had been actively campaigning since the mid-1930s to integrate baseball. Historian Jules Tygiel once credited the Communist press and the African American press for continually pushing the idea that baseball should be integrated. Daily Worker sports editor Lester Rodney said:
Of course, it always rankled me that [Rickey] never acknowledged the role of the Daily Worker in all this. But he was a big anti-Communist and he hated the idea of us getting credit for anything—especially for breaking the color line. He didn’t want anyone to think that he had succumbed to pressure from the Reds.[fn]Irwin Silber. Press Box Red; The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2003), 102.[/fn]
That may or may not settle the “how” of the decision, but it certainly doesn’t settle the “why” and there again, Rickey offered conflicting reasons. He once told Look magazine sports editor Tim Cohane, in a piece published in the magazine on March 19, 1946: “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 my own.”
That quote, as well as the story that Rickey was a crusader for equal rights after witnessing Charley Thomas (an African American catcher on Rickey’s Ohio Wesleyan team) cry in his South Bend, Indiana, hotel room in 1903 because of discrimination, are examples of what former Daily Worker sportswriter Bill Mardo calls the bubba meinse school of history. (Bubba meinse is a Yiddish expression that loosely translates as something akin to myth.)
In other talks with reporters, Rickey said that signing and then promoting Robinson was based solely on winning a pennant for the Dodgers. An article by John Chamberlain in an April 1948 issue of Harper’s magazine quoted Rickey (who got right to the point of the matter, which seemed to surprise the writer who expected Rickey to be evasive) as saying that Robinson was not promoted “to solve a sociological problem.” Instead, Rickey answered succinctly: “I brought him up for one reason: to win the pennant. I’d play an elephant with pink horns if he could win the pennant.”
The 1947 season was a trying one for the Dodgers. It was a season in which some people made fundamental personal changes in their beliefs that also indirectly helped shape a country. And Branch Rickey led them the whole way. At the end of it all, after losing a heartbreaking World Series to the New York Yankees, four games to three, Rickey encountered Yankees boss Larry MacPhail outside the clubhouse. The two had once been close. But MacPhail’s role in Rickey’s problems with the owners and Durocher’s suspension were a sore spot. Worst of all, MacPhail’s name kept popping up at odd times.
Rickey biographer Lee Lowenfish wrote: “The last straw may have been the recent comment by the combustible Yankees president that Leo Durocher would never have been suspended if Branch Rickey didn’t really want it to happen. In front of a swarm of photographers MacPhail offered a handshake to his defeated rival, but Rickey whispered, ‘I am taking your hand only because people are watching us, but never speak to me again, never.’”[fn]Lee Lowenfish. Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentlemen (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 438.[/fn]
JOE MARREN is an associate professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He was a summa cum laude graduate of Buffalo State in 1986, and he received his master’s degree in history from St. Bonaventure University in 1996. Marren worked as a newspaper reporter and then editor at a variety of community newspapers in western New York for eighteen years.
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Pratkanis, Anthony R. and Marlene E. Turner. “Nine Principles of Successful Affirmative Action: Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and the Integration of Baseball,” in The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and the American Culture, 1997 (Jackie Robinson), edited by Peter M. Rutkoff. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Also found in Out of the Shadows; African American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson, edited by Bill Kirwin. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
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Cohane, Tim. “A Branch Grows in Brooklyn,” Look (March 19, 1946), p. 69.
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Lardner, John. “Reese and Robinson: Team Within a Team,” New York Times Magazine (September 18, 1949), 17ff.
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Mann, Arthur W. “Say Jack Robinson: Meet the Dodgers’ Newest Recruit,” Colliers (March 2, 1946), pp. 67-68.
Meany, Tom. “What Chance,” Sport, January 1947, pp. 12-13, pp. 96-97.
Sheed, Wilfrid. “Branch Rickey: He Revolutionized Baseball. Twice. and He Was a Penny-Pinching, Scheming Hustler of a Saint, Too,” Sport, December 1986, p. 29, p. 137.
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Washburn, Pat. “New York Newspapers and Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” Journalism Quarterly Winter 1981, pp. 640-44.
Young, Dick. “Being A Baseball Writer,” Baseball Digest, January 1953, pp. 83-94.
“Rickey and Robinson,” Crisis, May 1947, p. 137.
Rookie of the Year,” Time (Sept. 22, 1947), 70.