Branch Rickey, 42, and the Heritage You Leave Behind

Great music, wonderful acting, engaging writing, and beautiful art can all inspire. Less frequently, these days, can a movie do as much. Recently I saw the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson, the first Black American to play Major League Baseball. While the movie focused on the struggles and insults he endured to play the game, the movie was perhaps more about a man, Branch Rickey, who took the risk of identifying and mentoring Mr. Robinson to be what he knew he could be – not only a great baseball player but the very best version of himself that he could be.

Branch Rickey, played in the movie by Harrison Ford, was an innovator and unquestionably a man of faith. He is credited with establishing the first full-time spring training facility for baseball in Vero Beach, Florida and inventing the batting cage, pitching machines, and batting helmets. In the movie 42 there is a scene where a pitcher deliberately throws at Jackie Robinson and hits him in the head. Maybe this is what inspired Branch Rickey to protect the heads of all baseball players. Rickey also introduced statistical analysis to baseball, known today as sabermetrics. A man born with great business sense, Rickey was born in Ohio in 1881 where he was drawn to manage sports teams. While in school, he witnessed overt racism and dehumanizing treatment of Black Americans and resolved to do something about it when he had a chance. Rickey was affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1942 and was the inventor of the farm system for baseball. To this day the Cardinal organization is known for its strict adherence to developing players through its farm system.

Rickey was labeled an idealist but because he was a man of faith, but he stuck to his convictions (and shrewd business sense) about Black Americans being more than ready to play in Major League Baseball and hence the hiring of Jackie Robinson to be that courageous witness. Robinson played in Kansas City for the Monarchs of the “Negro Leagues” but in October 1945, Rickey signed Robinson to play for the Montreal Royals, the minor affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1946 Robinson led the Montreal Royals to the league championship and he won the batting title. While there was no official statute banning Black Americans from baseball, there was an unwritten rule (which no club owner was prepared to break)prohibiting blacks from participating in Major League Baseball. The owners wanted the sport of Major League baseball to be perceived as representing the values and beliefs of everyday American white men. However Joe Louis, the great boxer, and Jesse Owens, the gold medal track star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, had already begun to pave the way for the cultural shift necessary to break the barrier. Robinson was baseball’s Rookie of the Year and though he was often jeered at by other players, managers, and fans, he became extremely popular with the American public. In 1947, the very next year, Bill Veck of the Cleveland Indians began integrating the American League as well.

On November 13, 1965 while delivering an acceptance speech for his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, and after speaking the words “now I am going to tell you a story from the Bible about spiritual courage”, Branch Rickey collapsed and never spoke again. He never regained consciousness and died 26 days later of heart failure – which was only 11 days before his 84th birthday. Jackie Robinson spoke at his funeral and said that other than Abraham Lincoln, no other man had done more for African Americans than Branch Rickey. Rickey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. Rickey was no failed idealist. He witnessed injustice at an early age and made a resolution, put his own self-interest aside, and dealt with it. “It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.” Perhaps we should all make a resolution for the New Year that we will keep – such as a resolution to address some great injustice in the manner that Branch Rickey did.