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Wesley Branch Rickey

Rickey's Legacy

Rickey was a genuine innovator who had a good bit of the college professor in him. His chief innovation, of course, was the farm system concept, which enabled teams like the Cardinals to compete against teams bankrolled by deeper-pocketed owners. Rickey was continually coming up with newfangled ideas, such as sliding pits, "pitching strings," and batting tees; he hired the first statistician in baseball (the Dodgers' Allan Roth) and used mathematical formulas to predict a team's success in offensive and defensive categories (and to question some commonly held assumptions about whether factors such as strikeouts are a reliable predictor of a team's ability to prevent runs). Rickey was interested in his players' moral welfare, and he always made it a point to inquire about a boy's character and family circumstances before deciding whether to sign him. He often spoke before the YMCA and other civic groups and was an early sponsor and supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Sports, Rickey believed, exemplified the moral percepts that make American great and that help to mold individual character.

Rickey had a genuine aesthetic appreciation of baseball and an almost evangelical faith in its place in American life. He was motivated by two guiding principles in challenging baseball's pre-World War II apartheid policy:a fundamental respect for democratic principles and "fair play"; and a religious conviction that it was not only the right time to break baseball's color line but was the right thing to do.

Baseball: An Illustrated History

In the spring of 1903, Ohio Wesleyan was scheduled to play Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana. Rickey's star was the first baseman, Charles "Tommy" Thomas, an African American equally skilled at baseball and football….

[When] Rickey and his team filed into the lobby of the Oliver Hotel at South Bend, the clerk told Rickey that while he and the rest of the team were welcome, Thomas was not. Thomas, humiliated, suggested that he just quietly return to Ohio Wesleyan and forget about playing.

Rickey wouldn't hear of it; he took Thomas to his own room. When the manager protested, Rickey threatened to take his whole team elsewhere if he didn't cooperate. The manager backed down.

Many years later, Rickey remembered what happened after he sent for the team captain to come to his room and talk over strategy for the big game: "Tommy stood in the corner, tense and brooding and in silence. I asked him to sit on a chair and relax. Instead, he sat on the edge of the cot, his huge shoulders hunched and his hands clasped between his knees. I tried to talk to the captain, but I couldn't take my gaze from Tommy. Tears welled, … spilled down his black face. … Then his shoulders heaved convulsively, and he rubbed one great hand over the other with all the power of his body, muttering, 'Black skin, … black skin. If I could only make 'em white.' He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction."

Rickey did his best to reassure Thomas, but "whatever mark that incident left on Charles Thomas, it was no more indelible than the impression made on me." The memory never left him and the conviction slowly grew that he would someday try to see to it that such things never happened again.

Source: Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

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Famous Sports StarsBaseballWesley Branch Rickey Biography - Raised On A Farm, Tentative Steps In The Big Leagues, Becomes Major League Executive, Develops Farm System - SELECTED WRITINGS BY RICKEY: