Pubic television will air Ken Burns’ biography of Jackie Robinson April 11-12. News item.
The enemy of truth is not error; it is myth.
John F Kennedy
The Curse of Branch Rickey
By John B Holway
The next nickel Branch Rickey pays for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, or Don Newcombe will be the first. These ex-Negro Leaguers led Brooklyn to five pennants in nine years, 1947-55. And Rickey stole them all from their black owners.
He was not the game’s Abe Lincoln; he was its Jesse James.
Rickey made a big show of his Christianity. There are two ways to be a Christian. One is never to play ball on Sunday. The other is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Branch Rickey passed the first test. He flunked the second cold.
He was not a revered Methodist saint. He was a pious Methodist hypocrite.
In fact, the history of baseball integration is a tale of greed and rapacity, with only one flash of true humanity.
True, it was a blessing to black players. But it was a disaster to black owners, who saw their life investments wiped out. “It’s like coming into a man’s store,” said the dying Cum Posey of the Washington Homestead Grays, “and stealing the goods right off the shelves.”
The Phils did pay $3.00 for pitcher Roy Partlow, who flunked his big chance. Otherwise, Rickey and the other white owners called the black owners “racketeers,” who therefore didn’t deserve to be paid.
As it turned out, Rickey was the biggest racketeer of all.
However, when he tried to steal Monte Irvin, the top black player of his day (Jackie was just a war-time rookie) from the
Newark Eagles, their glamorous owner, Effa Manley, stamped her foot. He had already stolen Newcombe from her, and this time she threatened to sue.
Branch dropped Monte like a hot foul tip. It never occurred to him to pay her a fair price – she probably would have taken $5,000, which the Giants later paid her. But Rickey apparently thought he was entitled to Irvin for free. (Bill Veeck later paid her $10,000 for Larry Doby and won the A.L. pennant.)
Monte, just back from the Army, put out a cover story that he thought his skills had declined and turned Rickey’s offer down. Baloney. Monte had the best year of his life in 1946, leading the black leagues with .411.
The black press jumped on Manley, who frantically tried to shop Irvin. The New York Giants finally decided to follow Brooklyn into the Negro league market and picked him up in 1948. That year Irvin batted .313 for the Eagles but said he felt he was at last ready for the majors. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
When Rickey had been general manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1939 and ’42, there was excitement in the black press about signing Roy Campanella and other stars to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, and other big league teams.
Rickey’s voice was notably silent.
Not until the death of hard-bitten Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 did Rickey pluck up courage to act. And then he stole the players.
Rickey not only stole them; he stole the credit for stealing them. That credit properly belongs to the commissioner who replaced Landis, a southerner, A.B. “Happy” Chandler. He opened the doors the very day he was hired – “Hell, yes, if a Negro can fight in Guadalcanal, he can play in the major leagues.”
As soon as they could, the 15 other owners fired him.
Rickey never lifted a finger to save him.
The biggest heist of all was pulled off by Bill Veeck. He promised Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs he would sign him, and when Satch nagged him: “When?… When?” Veeck kept stalling: “The time isn’t ripe yet.” Finally, when Paige’s contract with the Monarchs ran out, Veeck decided the time was ripe. He inked Satch without paying a cent. Paige would pitch before several sell-out crowds, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in Veeck’s pocket, not to mention the 1948 World Series bonanza.
Meantime Rickey added fast-baller Dan Bankhead, finally paying Memphis $15,000 for him. With them, the Dodgers won six pennants in ten years, 1947-56. But only one World Series. If Rickey had paid a measly $5,000 for Irvin, they almost surely would have won eight out of ten pennants and several more World Series. They lost two flags on the last day, to the Phils and Giants in 1950 and ’51.
In the latter year Monte led New York from 13 1/2 games behind to beat the Bums. He provided the winning runs in 36 victories, the second highest ever, and he could have been wearing Dodger blue if Rickey had been a decent human being, or even a competent judge of talent.
The final blow came when the Dodgers thumbed their noses at Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles.
The Rickey Myth became the Rickey Curse.
Not once did Jackie thank the black owners, who had kept the leagues alive through the Depression, giving him the showcase that he used to jump to the majors. Nor did he thank the black veterans – Cool Papa Bell and others – who coached him. They gave him tips on sliding and told him he didn’t have the range or the arm to play shortstop and urged him to shift to second. While he entered the Promised Land, they stayed behind and cheered his success. He never even tipped his cap to them.
Bell would scout Lou Brock and Ernie Banks for the Cubs. His payment: a basket of fruit.
There was one hero of integration, but he was not Rickey or Robinson. He was Monarch owner J.L. Wilkinson. Wilkie came from Brooklyn Iowa (“I pitched for Brooklyn,” he liked to say), and for 30 years, including the bitter Depression, he traveled with his players, shared their hardships, and mortgaged his home to make sure they got paid the first of every month. (He also beat the Majors to night baseball, in 1930.)
Just when the end of World War II finally brought promise of an economic boom, Rickey began his raids. Wilkinson’s partner urged him to sue, but Wilkie refused. “I won’t stand in the way of a man who has a chance to better himself,” he said.
In all, Wilkinson lost 30 men to the white majors – four are in the Hall of Fame: Robinson, Paige, Banks, and Brock. (Two others – Bullet Joe Rogan and Hilton Smith were too old to go to the Bigs.) Wilkie received almost nothing for the email all . He would die, blind and infirm, in a nursing home at the age of 90, greatly mourned by all his old players.
Would Rickey have signed Jackie if Wilkinson had asked a fair price? Based on the Irvin case, the answer is, probably no. Without Wilkinson, baseball apartheid might have continued for a decade or longer. And we might never have heard of Jackie, Campy, Monte, Larry, Ernie, Lou, Willie, Hank, Roberto etc.
The real saint of Integration was not Branch Rickey. It was J.L. Wilkinson.
Will Ken Burns tell that story?
(Note: This is one of baseball’s two biggest myths. What was the other one was? The answer in July.)
/// Many thanks to Bill Dean, Paul Haas, and Clay Marston for a great job of fact-checking.///
Ask Questions. Question Answers
Letters may be edited for length
How many times did a player fail in RBI opportunities when his team lost? How many inning-ending double plays or popups? Also, like the old GWRBI stat, this seems to punish good players on bad teams – the stat only counts if your team wins. Even the best clutch hitter can’t do much about shaky bullpens and bad defense. And in say, a 7-6 game, that 7th run isn’t worth much without the other 6.
This is far too simplistic and narrow to have much meaning in MVP considerations.
Don’t you also have to calculate the debit side of the ledger? How many times did a player fail in RBI opportunities when his team lost? How many inning ending double plays or popups? Also, like the old GWRBI stat, this seems to punish good players on bad teams – the stat only counts if your team wins. Even the best clutch hitter can’t do much about shaky bullpens and bad defense. And in say, a 7-6 game, that 7th run isn’t worth much without the other 6. This is far too simplistic and narrow to have much meaning in MVP considerations. But I do greatly admire your baseball knowledge.
(Batting Wins is only one tool. No tool by itself is perfect, so use everything available. But I do think this is one of the few that measures actual value on green grass, rather than theoretical excellence on the computer. By the way, it counts every run, not just the last one. I repeat: These numbers are for real runs in real games on real grass. And real games are unfair. Has anyone from a last-place team, no matter how deserving, ever been elected MVP?
And this year it tells us something no other stat does: Where else would you learn that Bryce Harper finished 23rd (!) in producing the runs needed for his team to win a game? Twenty-two man did better than he did. If the MVP voters had known this, I can’t imagine they would have made him their unanimous choice.
I didn’t compile these numbers; Tom Ruane found them in Retrosheet. But a 14-year old kid 72 years ago first wondered what we would find.
I don’t know why Bryce did so poorly – his RBIs were low, for one thing. If anyone has another theory, I’d love to hear it. Here’s hoping he does better this year. But if I were a team owner, I’d keep an eye on this stat. In a few years, he’ll be on the market, and the bidding could reach a record high. Will he really be worth it? An owner who knows his Batting Wins will have a big advantage over the other 29, who don’t know when to drop out or stay in the poker game.)
Really going out on a limb like that is just so daring and brave. (Abner Doublday)