In the summer of 1945, one white executive quietly, secretly, plotted an assault on baseball’s systematic practice of racial discrimination. This executive had a conscience. He knew that it was wrong to bar a man from organized baseball simply because of his race or color. He was courageous. He wasn’t afraid to buck the establishment.
He knew that baseball was robbing itself of a goldmine of talent when it indulged itself in the evil luxury of racial prejudice. And, being the game’s reigning genius, he knew how to right the wrong: he knew what steps to take and he knew how to dodge the lethal slugs. This man’s name was Branch Rickey. He was the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a storied, old National League ball club.
While he was a youngster, Rickey learned about baseball from an older brother, Orla. He took quickly to the game, sharpening his interest and knowledge by reading baseball stories in the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper and scanning advertisements in Spalding’s Guide, a trade publication. Baseball became, and remained, his Number 1 sport.
Wesley Branch Rickey was born into the devoutly religious southern Ohio farm family of Jacob and Emily Rickey on December 20, 1881. He began to learn about the Bible from his mother before he could speak the words. Her religious teachings influenced his entire life. In respect for her love of the Sabbath Day, Rickey abstained from Sunday baseball.
He did, in fact, insist on having it specifically noted in his professional baseball contracts that he would not be required to play baseball on Sundays, and it was a hassle with the team manager over this contractual provision which cost him an opportunity to play major league baseball with the Cincinnati Reds in 1904.
Simply because Rickey refused to play baseball on Sunday, the Reds’ manager quit speaking to him, and the older players ostracized him. They wouldn’t even permit him to take batting practice with them. He was released to the Dallas minor league team from which he had come.
When Rickey was 18 months old, his family moved across the Scioto River from Madison Township, where he was born, to Rush Township. He first attended school in Rush Township and next in nearby Lucasville.
As a youth, he was sensitive about a stutter in his speech and his hayseedishness. But he conquered the speech defect, and as he got around, he combed the hayseed out of his hair. Following graduation from high school in Lucasville, he passed the Scioto County Board examinations and was certified to teach.
For two years, he taught at the Friendship School in the Turkey Creek section of Scioto County (top salary: $40 a month.) He quit his fledgling career as a school teacher to resume his own education at Ohio Wesleyan, where, incidentally, his girlfriend from Lucasville, Jane Moulton, was also a student. Their romance flourished over the years, and on June 1, 1906, Branch Rickey married Jane Moulton in her Lucasville home.
One summer during his student years, Rickey accepted $25 a week from a pickup team called the Portsmouth (OH) Navies. The following fall, when Rickey went out for football at Ohio Wesleyan University, he was asked to sign an application form pursuant to the Articles of Agreement of the newly-founded Ohio College Conference. One question had to do with professionalism, i.e. participating in sports for money.
Rickey could easily have lied and signed the application, claiming that he had never played for pay. What he had done was not morally wrong, and the lie was not unknown in college sports circles. But this he steadfastly refused to do. He thereby declared himself ineligible for participation in Ohio Wesleyan sports. Even after the Portsmouth manager himself lied, saying: “I never paid the boy a damned cent.” Rickey refused to sign the application.
Ohio Wesleyan authorities were disappointed —Rickey was a good athlete—and shocked more than somewhat. But the next spring (1903), they rewarded his honesty by appointing him to the dual positions of baseball coach and director of athletics (salary: $250 for the spring), although Rickey was still a student and only 21 years of age.
In 1903 Branch Rickey took his Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team to play Notre Dame. When the team arrived at the old Oliver Hotel to check in, the hotel manager said, according to the Rev. Bob Olmstead, a Methodist minister in Palo Alto, CA, “I have rooms for all of you — except for him” — and he pointed to the team’s catcher, Charley Thomas, who was black.
“Why don’t you have a room for him?” Rickey asked.
“Because our policy is whites only.”
“I’d like to have Charley stay in my room,” Rickey responded. “Can you bring in a cot?”
After long deliberations, the innkeeper relented. Rickey sent the ball players to their rooms. But when he got to his room Charlie Thomas was sitting on a chair sobbing. Rickey recounted later, “Charlie was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands. “He looked at me and said, ‘It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin, it’s my skin, Mr. Rickey!’”
Many years later, Thomas said, “From the very first day I entered Ohio Wesleyan University, Branch Rickey took special interest in my welfare. As the first Negro player on any of its teams, some of the fellows didn’t welcome me too kindly, though there was no open opposition.
“But, I always felt that Mr. Rickey set them straight. During the three years that I was at Ohio Wesleyan, no man could have been treated better. When we went on trips, Mr. Rickey was the first one to see if I was welcome in the hotel where we were to stop. On several occasions, he talked the management into allowing me to occupy a double room with him and his roommate, Barney Russell.”
Jackie Robinson, whom Rickey signed in 1945 as the first black man in Major League baseball, echoed Charlie Thomas: “When I heard that story, I gathered new hope. If 45 years ago Mr. Rickey believed that a man deserved fair treatment regardless of his race or color, there was no reason to believe he had changed.”
Prior to the integration of professional baseball, African-American players played in a separate league.
“The more I learned about Branch Rickey,” said Robinson, “the more pleased I was that I was playing ball for him, was a part of his organization, and I wanted to show him I was capable of handling any situation into which he might drop me. I had never known a man like him before.”
Sources: “Branch Rickey Launches Negroes to Stardom with the signing of Jackie Robinson,” by A.S. Young, Ebony magazine, Nov 1968
“Eric Heiden, Charles Thomas and Branch Rickey,” by Mike Mathison, Weirton Daily Times (OH), April 5, 2010