Branch Rickey and the African-American Athlete in Professional Baseball

When the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox squared off in the 2013 World Series, there was only one African-American player on either roster. When these two teams met in the 1946 World Series there wasn’t a single African-American player in either dugout. In between 1946 and 2013, the Cardinals and Red Sox played each other two other times in the World Series (1967 and 2004) and by the time they met two decades later, in 1967, the African-American presence in baseball was 13.6%. The peak presence of African-American players in baseball was reached in the 1980s when nearly 1 in 5 players was African-American. By 2004, when the Cardinals and Red Sox squared off again, there were only two notable African-American players in that World Series. This begs the question of where all the African-American baseball players have gone. Before we address that question, let’s recall the contributions of one heroic man who facilitated the participation of the black athlete into mainline participation in the major professional sports leagues.

Branch Rickey, born in 1881, is known primarily for being the general manager that discovered Jackie Robinson and introduced him into Major League Baseball in 1947 as part of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The dynamics of their relationship are well-portrayed in the movie 42 where both men had to endure harsh criticism and humiliating events to persevere. As a result of both men’s courage, by 1952, there were 150 African-American players in organized baseball.

Rickey was born into a strict religious family and was a natural athlete. He went to law school, but gravitated toward sports management. From 1917 through 1942, he worked for the St. Louis Cardinals where he convinced the owner of the Cardinals to buy a minor league baseball team so the Cardinals could have first shot at up and coming players. Rickey also created the first full-time farm system, the first full-time spring training facility at Vero Beach, Florida, the batting cage, batting helmets, pitching machines, and the rudiments of statistical analysis, now known as sabermetrics. He was an idealist but a pragmatic businessman. He calculated very carefully the impact that a Jackie Robinson would have on the business of baseball and he calculated correctly.

What Branch Rickey did also flowed into pro football where the American Football League (AFL), founded by Lamar Hunt, decided to recruit or draft African-American players from small black colleges. This culminated in Vince Lombardi taking Dave Robinson, an African-American, in the first round of the NFL draft in 1963 and Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL taking Buck Buchanan, another African-American, in the first round of the AFL draft. Now the NFL is dominated by the African-American athlete as is the NBA. So why not baseball?

Up until the 1960s, football and basketball were not the games of choice. Baseball was the national pastime. However, as the NFL and the NBA have grew, many of the finer African-American athletes have moved away from baseball and focused more on those sports. Also there has been a great influx of very good Latino players who are groomed in team-sponsored academies much like for what is done in European Football (or soccer as it is called in the US). Latinos currently make up almost 28% of MLB rosters. The current percentage of African-American players on MLB rosters is 8.5%. There are some who complained that introducing African-Americans into MLB in 1947 via Jackie Robinson killed off a culture that not only included baseball but a whole “ecosystem” of African-American artists, educators, business people and laborers who had managed, in spite of segregation, to build a thriving and exciting society (think jazz) where young black men had role models they could look up to directly. The men were right there present in the life of the family going about their work and modeling that for their children.

The main challenge for the family now, both black and white, is the lack of male role models for young men. There is confusion on what it means to be a man. The family is the basic cell of society. It is where a child learns to live in communion with others. It is where the child learns to deal with life’s challenges and resolve conflicts. It is a place where a child is supported physically and emotionally. The family is also where the child learns to delay self-gratification and not merely focus on one’s self-interest. When parents, together, teach their children about sharing, the children naturally think about it as they mature. What does it look like to sacrifice for one another? That is what is learned in a family. When children witness adults acting selfishly they unfortunately follow suit. Branch Rickey grew up in a family that practiced these virtues and because they did, he was able to withstand a firestorm of anger and rage when he dared to cross MLB’s color barrier and to justifiably play Jackie Robinson in an all-white league. When he encountered injustice based on the color of a man’s skin, he knew it for what it was and acted accordingly. Play Ball!