Column: Honoring Robinson and Rickey

Dodgers president helped Jackie Robinson break racial barriers
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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.


  1. By PeteM
    April 16, 2010 at 10:02 am | permalink


    Great article. I wish I’d been able to make it to your talk on Rickey at the sequiscentennial.

    Pete Mooney

  2. April 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm | permalink

    I was born in Brooklyn two days before Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodger uniform for the first time and Ebbets Field became a regular destination for my Dad and me. Dad always tried to get seats along the first base line so could see Jackie close-up. Jackie Robinson is one of my heroes and what the Brooklyn Dodgers with Branch Rickey as the boss became like no other.
    Even with Branch Rickey plowing through the barriers, I don’t think it could have happened in any other place but Brooklyn. Brooklyn back then was a unique place; it was the real unsegregated spot on the world map. In that era, every WWII movie had a G.I. from Brooklyn. The actor’s roles usually came from a variety of places but always one guy from Brooklyn. And from Brooklyn, he could have any ethnicity, except Black (Blacks in movies a no no and in real life WWII Negroes were segregated in the Army). In musicals, Frank Sinatra and others “came” from Brooklyn. I’m a member of the New York Friar’s Club and it seems most members when relaxed have a Brooklyn accent. Everyone from Brooklyn, no matter their religion or ethnic root spoke some Yiddish; even the Chinese waiters in Chinese restaurants and everyone had Italian words in their vocabularies. My Christian friends would go to Hebrew School with me and I’d go to Sunday School with them.
    One of the ironies of the Brooklyn Dodger organization when Jackie joined the team, all broadcast announcers were southerners – Red Barber and former Tiger, Ernie Harwell for a few seasons; they were not very comfortable with Blacks on the team and pretty much said so. Ernie said he “respected” Robinson’s skills, Red Barber was more direct. All of them were out front about it.
    A few years ago on my WLBY program, I had as a guest Jackie’s daughter Sharon Robinson. It was wonderful to hear that people around the world are in awe of Jackie and that the Jackie Robinson Foundation receives donations from all over the globe.
    Mr. Rickey did not stop hiring African-American players after Jackie. He quickly signed Joe Black, Don Newcomb, Roy Campanella and others – All Hall of Famers. Other teams recognizing Black players exceptional skills started hiring also
    The Jackie Robinson that Branch Rickey allowed to blossom are both important people to me, not just from professional sports, but because in changed so much for many.

  3. By Jack F
    April 19, 2010 at 3:39 pm | permalink

    “One of the ironies of the Brooklyn Dodger organization when “Jackie joined the team, all broadcast announcers were southerners – Red Barber and former Tiger, Ernie Harwell for a few seasons; they were not very comfortable with Blacks on the team and pretty much said so. Ernie said he “respected” Robinson’s skills, Red Barber was more direct. All of them were out front about it.”

    So you are saying Ernie Harwell was a racist when he was calling games for the Dodgers?

  4. April 20, 2010 at 11:18 am | permalink

    Ernie Harwell was brought up in a segregated world; Blacks were inferior humans and no integration existed. Separate bathrooms, restaurant access, hotels and pretty much everything in the South was the norm. I was stationed in the Army outside of Richmond, VA in the late-sixties. Signs were everywhere “No Colored Served” (some restaurants also added Jews) and signs on public restrooms had signs directing “Colored” entrances. I’ll never forget a white soldier from Louisiana said to a towering Black man from Alabama “you are the nicest Nigger I know”; I was waited for all hell to breakout. The Black man from Alabama, who was a schoolteacher, accepted it as normal. Saying Ernie was a raciest is just a plan fact. Not long before Ernie’s death Bob Costa’s interviewed Ernie on MLB television and Bob didn’t pull punches in asking Robinson questions and Ernie answered politely and as we call it today, politically correct. He said It was awkward to see an African-American on the field. Ernie then said after a while he and Jackie became friends playing cards during train trips. Of course, we know his perspective on the integration of baseball and America changed. I knew Ernie from when I worked at WJR and we had dinner a few times. He was the pinnacle of a gentleman.

  5. By Jack F
    April 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm | permalink

    Ernie isn’t dead. He has inoperable cancer but is still very much alive.

  6. By Jack F
    April 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    From the Costa interview:

    It was a little strange seeing a black man play against white competition. I accepted it and Jackie Robinson became a very good friend of mine. I played cards with him, played golf with him, rode the train with him. It’s the most exciting and most eventful thing that’s happened in sports history, the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.”

    Ernie Harwell