Branch Rickey’s Lessons for Today’s Business Owners and CEOs

Branch Rickey's Lessons for Today's Business Owners and CEOs

In October 1945, as he prepared to announce the signing of Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Branch Rickey visited his friend, the well-known broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

“Branch, all hell will break loose!” Thomas told Rickey, as recounted by Lee Lowenfish in “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman.” “No, Lowell,” Rickey replied. “All heaven will rejoice.”

Rickey, then the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager, is remembered for his courage and foresight in breaking baseball’s color line, the unofficial racial barrier which had stood firmly since the late 1800s. Robinson played his first game as a major leaguer 70 years ago this week.

Rickey often said that he was drawn to the cause of racial equality when, in 1903, he observed Charles Thomas, the only black member of the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team, being denied a hotel room in South Bend, Ind. “I never felt so helpless in my life,” said Rickey.

A 1949 Newsweek profile noted that Rickey spent “two intensely secretive years” considering the implications of breaking baseball’s color barrier, not even informing the Dodgers’ scouting department of his potential move.

“When Robinson was signed, it effectively opened up the biggest pool of talent in history,” said Daniel R. Levitt, co-author with Mark L. Armour of “In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball.”

Rickey’s innovations are seen throughout baseball today. He established the first “farm system” for developing major league talent and encouraged the use of statistical analysis in evaluating players. He promoted modern training methods and equipment.

More broadly, Rickey elevated and exemplified the baseball general manager position, a role that most often had been taken on by an owner or team president. Under Rickey, it would include everything from player development to scouting.

Rickey left an “unmatched resume in the game,” wrote Armour.  “As a general manager he dramatically changed how teams find and develop players, and what players are allowed to play the game. His place as the greatest GM in baseball history is secure.”

Early Years

Wesley Branch Rickey (1881-1965) was born in Stockdale, Ohio, to Frank and Emily Rickey. Lowenfish writes that the family had a “hardscrabble existence,” trying to subsist on a vegetable farm.

Born into a pious family, Rickey’s name derived from John Wesley, a founder of Methodism. The name “Branch” came from scripture, possibly from a passage in the Old Testament.

Rickey studied at Ohio Wesleyan, arriving on campus as “the picture of the hayseed,” according to Lowenfish, and experienced a difficult transition. He made his mark on both the football and baseball fields, showing “plenty of pep and ginger” as a catcher.

In 1903, Rickey witnessed the stellar performance of Charles Follis, who is believed to have been the first black professional football player. Follis’ on-field achievements, combined with his poise in the face of racial pressures, impressed Rickey, planting a seed for his determination years later to integrate baseball.

After signing a minor league baseball contract in 1903, Rickey debuted in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1905. His playing career over four seasons was pedestrian. While catching, he allowed a stunning 13 stolen bases in a single game, setting a dubious record. Following an arm injury and a bout of tuberculosis, Rickey enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. He also became the baseball coach at Michigan.

In 1913, Rickey became an executive for the Browns, signing future Hall of Famer George Sisler and later managing the team for more than two seasons. In 1919, Rickey joined the St. Louis Cardinals as team manager and president. In 1925, he was fired as manager by owner Sam Breadon, a serendipitous move which allowed Rickey to focus exclusively on being an executive.

Innovative Approach

Rickey revamped the Cardinals’ roster, laying the groundwork for six pennants and four World Series during his 24 seasons there. He quickly released players who did not meet his standards, turning around a previously mediocre franchise. Rickey acquired eventual stars Joe Medwick and brothers Dizzy and Daffy Dean, who shaped the Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang” in the 1930s.

Though Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was dismissive of Rickey’s farm system, fearing it would destroy the existing structure, Rickey used it to great success.  The World Series-winning 1942 Cardinals were built with players Rickey’s system developed, including Stan Musial, the best player in franchise history.

Rickey reshaped the entire organization:

“The farm system allowed Rickey to institute the ‘Cardinal Way,’ ” said Levitt.  “It was an organizational philosophy extending from the lowest farmhands to the Major League team. It instituted organizationwide training techniques and defined what sort of players the team’s scouts would seek.  There became a pride in being a Cardinal. Rickey was the first baseball executive to develop this kind of organizational framework.”

Rickey joined the Dodgers before the 1943 season. The core players of Brooklyn’s six World Series teams between 1947 and 1956 were acquired and developed under Rickey. With Brooklyn, Rickey hired the first team statistician, opened a team spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., and implemented new training techniques, including the use of pitching machines.

Signing Jackie Robinson

Rickey was acutely aware that he needed to sign the right player to break baseball’s color barrier.

“Mr. Rickey knew he needed a superb player or the man wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Carl Erskine, a member of the Dodgers from 1948 through 1959 and a teammate of Jackie Robinson for nine seasons. “Robinson was a four-letter man at UCLA. His best sport may have been football, not baseball.  And he had to be intelligent.  Jackie certainly was.

“Mr. Rickey said to Jackie: ‘If a fight starts on the field, I’m picking you. You’re quicker, you’re faster, and you’re stronger. You’re going to win the fight. But are you strong enough not to fight? You must tell me that you’re willing to commit yourself not to fight.’ When Jackie said, ‘I think I can do it,’ Mr. Rickey read to him a paraphrased version of ‘Turn the Other Cheek,’ a verse in the Bible, about having the courage to resist.”

Rickey, according to Erskine, stressed the Christian faith of both of their mothers in making his plea and offer to Robinson. “That was a critical moment, often unmentioned in history, when Jackie made the commitment.”

Robinson, who debuted 70 years ago this week, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 and led Brooklyn to the World Series. Robinson’s struggles and triumphs are an integral part of American history, and his importance to baseball and its growth is immense.

Rickey encouraged Cleveland to sign Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League, because he did not want to “corner the market on black players,” wrote Lowenfish.

“Mr. Rickey unselfishly gave up a Hall of Famer for the American League to be integrated,” said Erskine. “That was selfless and is too often forgotten.”

The African-American players whom Rickey signed, including Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, were central to Brooklyn’s success throughout the 1950s. After losing a power struggle, Rickey left the Dodgers for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1950. While the team struggled during his time as general manager, Rickey acquired many of the top players on Pittsburgh’s 1960 World Series-winning team, including Roberto Clemente.

Methods And Criticisms

“There was no one quite as good at seeing greatness in raw talent,” Lowenfish told IBD. “In evaluating players and hiring quality scouts, nobody quite matches Rickey.”

But, while his farm system allowed him to acquire players cheaply, “he was hated because he made the money and the players didn’t,” said Lowenfish. Erskine said that Rickey was often referred to as El Cheapo, connoting a reputation for miserliness which Rickey had difficulty shaking, even though he sometimes spent profusely on players.

Some suggested that Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson also had underlying financial motivations.  Others criticized Rickey for never coming to the ballpark on Sundays, as he honored the Sabbath to pay homage to his mother.

Erskine said that Rickey tested players, trying to learn how they processed information.

“He helped many players excel, through his patience and his unique methods. In spring training, he used to talk to players as they worked out. He wanted to see if you had aptitude.

“He had a $5 bill which he’d lay on home plate. He’d say: ‘Son, I want you to throw the ball with your hand backwards to the plate. If you can hit that $5, you can have it.’ He often gave us little tests which helped him make judgments about players. He wanted to know if you could learn unconventionally.”

Death And Impact

On Dec. 9, 1965, Rickey died at age 83 of heart failure in Columbia, Mo. Nearly a month earlier, he had collapsed while giving a speech during his induction to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and never regained consciousness. He was survived by his wife, Jane, and five daughters.

“Mr. Rickey was a human dynamo,” said Erskine. “He truly kept going until he stopped.”

Rickey’s most prominent contribution will always be signing Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier:

“To me, Rickey and Robinson were the right combination,” said Lowenfish. “The years when they were together were vital to the country. Rickey was the indispensable man in that move. He also deserves credit for two other revolutions: the farm system and trying to establish the Continental League, a rival league which didn’t succeed but which certainly prompted expansion.

“What he was able to achieve was remarkable. Given his humble beginnings and extraordinary achievements, Rickey really was the Horatio Alger story writ large.”

Rickey’s Keys

Innovative baseball executive who helped break baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.

Overcame: Widespread resistance to baseball’s integration and to many of his innovations.

Lesson: Importance of thinking strategically and maintaining focus on long-term goals regardless of opposition.

“Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.”