clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Branch Rickey Miracle

Jackie Robinson deservedly is credited as a pioneering hero, but the man who put him in the position to do so risked a great deal as well.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

"Of course the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln made the southern Negro slave free," Branch Rickey said in 1956, "but it never did make the white man morally free. He remained a slave to his inheritances. And some are, even today." Rickey was being generous in his estimation of his fellow Americans in a way he never was with fellow baseball executives when negotiating a trade. It was more than "some" of his contemporaries who were still a slave to the prejudices they had inherited; it was many, as the sometimes violent confrontations over civil rights that were then occurring and would continue to occur over the next ten years, would demonstrate.

We tend to think of history in triumphalist terms: The country we live in today, with all its virtues and faults, was the one we were destined to have. Progress is the dominant force in the universe, giving us, year by year, a world a little less bleak than it was. Medievalism was so last year, every year; this year, next year, will be a new renaissance. In this view, the integration of baseball, planned by Rickey and carried out by Jackie Robinson, was the inevitable result of changes at work in the country and the world in the immediate postwar period. Integration was going to be tried and it was going to succeed.

There is some truth to this view, but it has the effect of depriving Rickey of agency and minimizing the incredible, potentially mortal risk he was taking in signing Robinson and promoting him to the major leagues. It is impossible to imagine now, in what is often optimistically referred to as a post-racial society, just how deeply ingrained was the culture of segregation, and the violent lengths to which many were prepared to go to defend it.

It is impossible to imagine now, in what is often optimistically referred to as a post-racial society, just how deeply ingrained was the culture of segregation, and the violent lengths to which many were prepared to go to defend it.

Last year we had a Best Picture nominee in "Lincoln" that told the story of the 16th president's battle to get the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, passed by the United States Congress. This was rapidly followed by the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all citizens as well as the right to due process, and the 15th, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The three Civil War-era Amendments (passed in 1865, 1866, and 1869) would seem to have made clear that, at least on a legal basis, America was done with the black-white thing. Yet, Lincoln was not long in his grave before the apartheid system enforced by white southerners for the next hundred years had come into existence.

Von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The reverse is true as well -- politics can be war by other means. The South, having lost the Civil War militarily, set out to undo the result politically and largely succeeded. The guns had not been cold for even eight months before Mississippi enacted the first of the Black Codes, laws codifying the African American's inferior status. Blacks could not serve on juries, could not testify against a white, could not own a gun. Blacks had to sign a contract to work and could not leave a job of their own accord without being subject to arrest. Any black not obviously employed could be arrested for vagrancy and hired out to any employer until he paid a fine. Similar laws were enacted in all the southern states.

These laws evolved into the Jim Crow system of segregating and dehumanizing blacks, of which baseball's color line was just one small part. Trying yet again to ensure that blacks were treated fairly, Congress passed a civil-rights act in 1875 that undid the Black Codes. The Supreme Court invalidated that in 1883, and in 1891 legalized discrimination under the doctrine of "separate but equal." The brief career of Moses Fleetwood Walker, the last African-American to play in Organized Baseball until Jackie Robinson, took place between those two Supreme Court cases and can be seen as symptomatic of the successful putsch against the Constitution.

It is important to understand that Jim Crow was not merely a series of regulations that governed the interactions of whites and blacks, but rather included laws, folkways, and customs that permeated nearly every aspect of day-to-day life in ever-more complex and sometimes ludicrous ways. As C. Vann Woodward wrote in The Strange Career of Jim Crow:

In 1909 Mobile passed a curfew law applying exclusively to Negroes and requiring them to be off the streets by 10 pm. The Oklahoma legislature in 1915 authorized its Corporation Commission to require telephone companies "to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons." North Carolina and Florida required that textbooks used by the public school children of one race be kept separate from those used by the other, and Florida law specified separation even while the books were in storage. South Carolina for a time segregated a third caste by establishing separate schools for mulatto as well as for white and Negro children. A New Orleans ordinance segregated white and Negro prostitutes in separate districts. Ray Stannard Baker found Jim Crow Bibles for Negro witnesses in Atlanta courts and Jim Crow elevators in Atlanta buildings.

A search of the statute books fails to disclose any state law or city ordinance specifying separate Bibles and separate elevators... laws are not an adequate index of the extent and prevalence of segregation and discriminatory practices in the South. [Emphasis in original.]

Virginia mandated separate waiting rooms in airport terminals (though not separate planes), and in 1932 Atlanta passed a law forbidding black and white amateur baseball teams from playing within two blocks of each other.

Incredibly, it had been worse. Rickey, born in 1881, grew up in a nation in which, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney had put it in the Dred Scott decision before the war, blacks were considered, "altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Despite the Civil War and the passage of years, that African-Americans were still viewed as being without rights was made clear by the sheer number of lynchings: the summary execution of black men (though women and children were not immune) without trial, often by hanging but also including burning at the stake (before and after death) and other forms of mutilation.

These murders were almost inevitably blamed on specious allegations of rape involving white women (at least one courageous group of such women, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, put out a statement that said, in essence, if you men want to kill someone please stop using us as an excuse to do it). But in many cases, blacks were murdered without any accusation having been made at all. In Rickey's youth, lynchings in America peaked, with over 200 a year. By the time he was 40, it was estimated that nearly 3,500 blacks had been lynched during his lifetime.

Lynchings peaked around the turn of the 20th century, but the practice had in no way ended by the time Rickey decided to integrate the Dodgers. Laws to combat it were still being debated in Congress during the 1930s and '40s. These were unsuccessful, due to filibustering by southern politicians and a lack of support from a Democratic Party establishment afraid of alienating Southerners. Lynching was still enough of an issue that when Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" -- the eerie and pained evocation of "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" -- in 1939, this distinctly anti-pop cri de coeur sold over a million records.

One of the last incidents of mass lynching in the United States took place in Georgia on July 25, 1946, well into Robinson's first season in white baseball. A sharecropper, Roger Malcolm, had gotten into a fight with his white employer and stabbed him. Another white farmer had driven Malcolm's wife and another black couple, Mr. and Mrs. George Dorsey, to post Malcolm's bail. Dorsey was a World War II veteran, recently back from the Pacific. Malcolm's wife was seven months pregnant. On the way back from picking up Malcolm, the car was stopped by "a large group of unmasked white men with pistols and shotguns." The black men were removed from the car. When one of the wives recognized one of their assailants, they too were pulled out. All four were killed. "The coroner's report said that at least sixty bullets were found in the scarcely unrecognizable bodies." The white farmer with the two couples "consistently denied that he could identify any of the unmasked murderers."

Such violence was not limited to the south. In the early morning hours of February 5, 1946, in Freeport, New York on Long Island, a police officer named Joseph Romeika was called to a lunchroom at the local bus depot, where four black brothers, two of them returning veterans, had caused a disturbance -- out drinking, they had been refused service, possibly due to their race, and argued with the counterman. Leaving the terminal, one of the brothers broke a window of an office building. It was at this moment that the policeman arrived and, according to subsequent testimony, accosted them physically and then, drawing his gun, lined them up against a wall and opened fire. Two of the brothers died. Despite a public outcry, a grand jury declined to indict the officer.

In 1940s America, and for a long time thereafter, black Americans could be killed at any time, for any reason, and no authority could be counted upon to rescue or avenge them. As the black union organizer and civil-rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph said, "Anything may occasion a community to burn a Negro. It might be a well-dressed Negro, a Negro who speaks good English, or a Negro who talks back to a white man." A common feature of the aftermath of such incidents was the inability to identify, indict, or convict perpetrators. There was no justice.

Future incidents, among them the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, two of them white, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, along with other acts of violence against civil-rights proponents, from the beatings of Freedom Riders in 1961 to the bloody beatings of peaceful marchers on their way to Selma, Alabama in 1965, showed that violent reprisals would not be limited to African-Americans, but would be extended to any whites who dared show solidarity.

A discussion of race violence in the 1940s cannot be limited to lynchings. There were also incidents of mass violence, sometimes including large contingents of the police or the National Guard. Rickey was field manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919, during what became known as the "Red Summer" after 38 separate race riots led to death and destruction all across the country. Infamous incidents, in which entire black communities were destroyed, took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June, 1921 and in Rosewood, Florida in January, 1923 (both inspired by rumors of rape). Rickey might have recalled those incidents during World War II, when there were over 20 riots involving (and, to be fair, in some cases likely instigated by) African-American servicemen, or in June, 1943, when a three-day battle between whites and blacks took place in Detroit.

Rickey was field manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919, during what became known as the "Red Summer" after 38 separate race riots led to death and destruction all across the country.

This was the world in which Branch Rickey conceived of breaking the color line, and the world in which Jackie Robinson's career and that of those who followed him unfolded. Much has been made of the Mahatma's motivations. He was fond of telling the story of Charles Thomas, an African-American player he coached at Ohio Wesleyan in 1904. When the team traveled to South Bend to play Notre Dame, Thomas was denied a room. Rickey would always remember Thomas breaking down, rubbing his hands and saying, "Damned skin ... If only I could rub it off." The pain and injustice of that moment stayed with Rickey. "Whatever mark that incident left on the black boy," he said, "it was no more indelible than the impressions made on me. For forty years I've had recurrent visions of him wiping off his skin."

Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, he was willing to disclaim any moral pretensions. In this sense, his motives were exactly the same as when he created the farm system while running the Cardinals: he wanted to corner a supply of cheap talent for a team that couldn't otherwise afford to compete with the big boys.

"The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot."-Branch Rickey

The Dodgers had been in debt for close to 30 years by the time he joined the organization. "The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race," he said. "The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot."

For Rickey, the correct answer was probably "all of the above." He was a moral man, a devout Methodist. He believed in equality, but was hardly some wild-eyed radical; this was a lifelong Republican who enjoyed being introduced to Whitaker Chambers.

Later in life, he castigated those who would have preferred to slow-walk integration:

They call you an extremist if you want integration now -- which is the only morally defensible position. To advise moderation is like going to a stickup man and saying to him: "Don't use a gun. That's violent. Why not be a pickpocket instead? A moderate is a moral pickpocket.

Yet, Rickey was hardly impetuous in overthrowing apartheid baseball. He had known that segregation was wrong all his life, but he didn't act in St. Louis, a city deeply invested in Jim Crowism. After leaving the Dodgers for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he integrated that team as well. Gradually. What would move a cautious man to finally act? A little self-interest, that would do the trick. There's nothing wrong with that, especially when you consider that given the racial politics of the time, given the very real possibility of violence directed toward Jackie Robinson or himself, true self-interest would have dictated that he not act at all.

Because violence did not occur, it is easy for us to dismiss the possibility, but that is not something Rickey could have taken for granted from 1945 through '49, or in fact at any point before his death in 1965.

Baseball has honored Jackie Robinson by retiring his number throughout the majors, and setting aside a day each year to remember him. It is no more than his accomplishments deserve. Rickey told Robinson he was looking for a player with the guts not to fight back. We know that in his first years he was given more than adequate provocation by the established white major leaguers, yet he held his temper and waited until he and those who came later were well-enough established that he could risk showing some anger. He was, in spite of this, excellent, a star. But there should be a Branch Rickey Day too.

Rickey would say he did no more than the right thing, but the right thing takes courage. The fight for integration in baseball is often depicted as a battle of boardrooms (Rickey against the owners) and of the ballfield (Robinson against the racists). It was far more than that. It was a way of life, more than a century old, that was being challenged. When you look at it that way, it's a miracle that it happened at all.

Sources: From Slavery to Freedom (John Hope Franklin); It Ain't Over ‘Til It's Over (Steven Goldman, ed.); The Aspirin Age (Isabel Leighton, ed.); Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman (Lee Lowenfish); Branch Rickey: A Biography (Murray Polner); White Violence and Black Response (Herbert Shapiro); The Strange Career of Jim Crow (C. Vann Woodward)

More from Baseball Nation:

Baseball Nation’s 42 coverage (updated daily!)

Was Jered Weaver already hurt?

The Rays, Marty Foster, and THE HUMAN ELEMENT

When Twitter hates Strike 3

Right-handed lefties and left-handed righties