The first quarter of this year has been filled with endless sports stories about salaries and steroids and sex – and pretty much everything but sports. So I welcome a look back at a time the stakes were real, and the men were equal to the moment.
Well, we’re in luck, because this week marks the anniversary of the most important day in sports: April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his major league debut.
Even people who don’t know about sports know about Jackie Robinson – and they should. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
But, without a much less famous man named Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and a University of Michigan law school graduate, Robinson might never have gotten his chance.
At first glance, Rickey was a very unlikely candidate for such an important mission. He was a staunch conservative who hated Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and welfare in equal measure. But if you look a little closer, it makes more sense.
Rickey was born in 1881 in Lucasville, Ohio, a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. He went to Ohio Wesleyan, where he coached a baseball team that had a black catcher. When Rickey took his team to South Bend to play Notre Dame, the hotel clerk would not give the catcher a room. After lots of arguing, Rickey told the clerk the player would stay in his room.
Fifty years later, Rickey recalled, “When I got to the room, here was this fine young man sitting there crying and pulling at his hands. I asked him what was wrong. ‘Oh, Mister Rickey,’ he said, ‘it’s my skin. If only I could pull it off everything would be all right.’ All these years I have heard that boy crying.”
After Rickey tried pro baseball – hitting a lukewarm .239 – he enrolled in the University of Michigan law school. But he couldn’t shake the baseball bug, so he managed Michigan’s team on the side.
He tried practicing law, but hated it, and returned to baseball as an executive. Rickey once asked, “why a man trained for the law devotes his life to something so cosmically unimportant as a game?”
One thing is certain: Rickey never treated baseball as just a game. He didn’t just return to it. He reinvented it, twice – first by creating the modern minor league system, which produced the St. Louis Cardinals’ famous Gashouse Gang that won four World Series. Then Rickey moved to Brooklyn, where he finally hatched his plan to change the game – and the country – forever. He still heard that catcher crying.
A few years ago, I had the chance to interview baseball legend Buck O’Neil, who told me, “It took a big man to do what Rickey did. It could have killed Rickey in baseball if this thing had blown up.”
But whom could he find to take on such an incredible task? There were better Negro League ballplayers than Jackie Robinson, and certainly more passive ones. But Rickey said, “I don’t like silent men, when personal liberty is at stake.” Rickey didn’t make the safe choice. He made the bold one – and the best one.
In 1965, Branch Rickey died at age 84. When a reporter called Robinson to pass on the sad news, Robinson fell silent. Finally, he turned to his wife Rachel and said, “Rae, take this call. Mr. Rickey has just died.”
Later, Rachel said, “Rickey needed Jack as much as Jack needed Rickey.”
Baseball great Buck O’Neil agreed. “Don’t ever forget,” he told me. “When you say Jackie Robinson, to say Branch Rickey too, see, because you couldn’t have one without the other.”
We were lucky to have both.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.