Rickey's work honored in new book

Rickey's work honored in new book

KANSAS CITY -- "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman."

The book title captures the complexity of the man who "made a spark that helped shape three cultures -- black, white and American," grandson Branch Rickey III said.

Rickey III attended a book signing and lecture by Lee Lowenfish at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Lowenfish wrote the latest book about baseball's integration pioneer. Rickey III calls it the best of three books about his grandfather, who as an executive with the Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues in 1947.

"It's a more comprehensive character study with the benefit of insight, the distillation of time, events and history," Rickey III said.

Lowenfish's first book, "The Imperfect Diamond: Baseball's Labor Wars," highlighted the game's often uneasy relationship with business. Research for that book triggered his interest in Rickey.

In 1881, Emma and Jacob Rickey named their second-born son, Wesley Branch Rickey. "Wesley" reflected their strong Methodist beliefs and their following of John Wesley, who urged his followers, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."

The "Branch" in his name also reflected the family religious beliefs. Lowenfish found a passage underlined in a Rickey family Bible from John 15:2, "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away; and every branch that bears fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."

Cynics who argue Rickey only helped break down the color barrier because it would be good for business, ignore some of the earlier signs of his passion for racial equality. In 1903, as the young coach of the Ohio Wesleyan College baseball team, he took his squad to play Notre Dame. When the team arrived in South Bend, Ind., the hotel desk clerk refused to provide a room for the team's lone black player, Charles Thomas. Rickey demanded a meeting with the manager and spent an hour convincing him Thomas should stay in the hotel. The manager finally agreed, but only if Thomas would sleep on a cot in Rickey's room.

"Thomas was grateful for his coach's support, but when he entered the room, he broke down sobbing, pawing at his skin as if to remove the stain of its color," Lowenfish said.

Rickey promised Thomas one day they would see true equality in the United States.

Through the 1930s, black athletes such as sprinter Jesse Owens and boxer Joe Louis became accepted in individual sports. As Rickey moved into baseball management positions, he envisioned the same kind of thing happening in baseball.

"It was one thing for a black athlete competing in an individual sport to succeed, and another for an African-American to make his mark in a team sport where he would have to be a teammate as well as an individual star," Lowenfish said.

Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942, and later used the nearing of the end of World War II as a starting point for his move to integrate baseball. He figured Americans would be more accepting of blacks in baseball because of the recent service of blacks in the military.

Rickey came up with an ingenious plan to scout for black players. He announced he would be setting up a new Negro Leagues team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. That is when Robinson's name began to appear. Robinson had already gained a certain measure of fame because of his football exploits at UCLA. He was also a flashy baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

Trusted scout Clyde Sukeforth brought Robinson to New York for an interview. After two minutes of strained silence, Rickey began peppering Robinson with a style similar to how he interviewed all prospective employees. After that, he zeroed in.

"Do you know why you were brought here?" Rickey finally asked Robinson.

"Something about playing for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in a new Negro league?" Robinson replied somewhat hesitatingly.

"No," shot back Rickey.

"I am thinking of signing you to play for my top Minor League team, the Montreal Royals, and if you are good enough, then one day to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But first I need to know if you are tough enough," Lowenfish said.

Soon Robinson figured out Rickey's definition of "tough enough," as in "tough enough to not fight back." In a mere three-hour first meeting, Rickey knew he had found his man.

Rickey III recalled that after his grandfather's death, the family began packing away the memorabilia from his office. Despite the large number of plaques and awards, not a single one commemorated the signing of Robinson. Branch Rickey, "The Ferocious Gentleman," would not accept one.

Max Utsler is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.