The Bible-Quoting Firebrand Behind Jackie Robinson

The Bible-Quoting Firebrand Behind Jackie Robinson

Why you should care

Because when you are taking applications for the position of baseball legend, you have to cover all the bases.

“I’m going to do it,” general manager Branch Rickey told a colleague over lunch in 1945. “I’m going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers.” World War II was not yet over, Martin Luther King Jr. was just a precocious 16-year-old college student and it would be another decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

“I don’t know who he is or where he is,” Rickey confessed, “but he is coming.”

And come he did. Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn — celebrated every April 15 — would forever change baseball and American society. But Rickey’s quest to find the player who had both the talent to compete in the major leagues and the character to endure the inevitable racial abuse was no easy task. His job search to fill the unprecedented role — of breaking baseball’s unwritten color line — entailed a vast scouting operation, more than one elaborate ruse and deep reserves of stubborn persistence.

Rickey convinced the team’s owners that recruiting black players was about engineering championships, not social change.

An eccentric, Bible-quoting firebrand from Ohio, Rickey had been a pro player and a coach before becoming an innovative general manager. Prior to going to Brooklyn in 1943, he spent three decades in St. Louis, where he invented baseball’s farm system for developing and harvesting young talent, like crops, for the majors. Rickey was seldom without a cigar or a scheme and was constantly jotting his thoughts on napkins. By 1943, the devout Methodist and social progressive who had grown up playing alongside talented black ballplayers — banned from Major League Baseball since the 1880s — had a new plan: the re-integration of professional baseball.

To do this, Rickey first had to bring the Dodgers ownership aboard. His first ruse, as biographer Jimmy Breslin chronicles in Branch Rickey: A Life, was to win the support of the team’s major financial backer, George V. McLaughlin. Rickey knew the banker would think in crudely financial terms about black ballplayers in Brooklyn and could help him make a convincing pitch to ownership that prejudice was really just an obstacle to profit. With McLaughlin’s support, Rickey convinced the team’s owners — with little resistance — that recruiting black players was about engineering championships, not social change (for Rickey, it was about both). “No matter what the skin color or language, win the game,” Rickey told the board.

Rickey’s talent search began in earnest in early 1945. To mask what he was doing, he threw up two smoke screens: He founded both a fake Negro team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a bogus new Negro league, the United States League, to justify the team’s black recruiting efforts. Rickey received dispatches from scouts in ballparks and sandlots across America. Under consideration were Negro League legends Josh Gibson, the “black Babe Ruth” who likely hit the longest ball ever at Yankee Stadium, and Satchel Paige, a flamboyant fireballer so confident that he would often call in his outfielders and pitch without them. But both Gibson and Paige were over 30 and past their prime and had questionable lives off the field, the rakish Paige prone to boasting, “I’m not married, but I’m in demand.”

Jackie Robinson

Catcher Toby Atwell scrambles for the Dodgers’ second baseman, Jackie Robinson, who crosses home plate to score.

Rickey was looking for a family man whose private life was beyond reproach and who could handle the coming pressure cooker. Then one day there came word of a Jack Roosevelt Robinson, an Army lieutenant and four-sport athlete at UCLA. When Jackie was a baby, his mother, a cleaner who’d been abandoned by her sharecropping husband in Georgia, took her five children on a Jim Crow train to Pasadena. Rickey found in Robinson “everything that he wanted in a race pioneer,” Lee Lowenfish observes in Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman: “great talent, fierce competitiveness, good personal and family values and a commitment to uplift his race.”

On August 24, 1945, days after Japan’s surrender ended World War II, Rickey’s most trusted scout, Clyde Sukeforth, watched Robinson, a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, play in Chicago. Four days later, Robinson was in Rickey’s office for a historic encounter in which the legendary recruit was told, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back.”

Rickey wanted to follow Robinson’s signing with that of other black players, but the plan fell by the wayside in October, when Rickey learned that New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and others were planning to integrate the city’s professional baseball teams. Not wanting his thunder stolen, Rickey hastily arranged for a press conference to announce Robinson’s debut.

Other black players would eventually follow, but Robinson was thrust into the limelight by himself on April 15, 1947, and the burden of history would rest solely on his broad shoulders. The hardest part was still to come, but there would be no question that Rickey had found the right man for the job.

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