A Prolific Pioneer: Branch Rickey

In a game riddled with innovation and competitive imbalance never has there been a pioneer as prolific as Branch Rickey. We recognize him for much of his work, an amount which would bedazzle the resume of any business executive, however even this list of accomplishments barely scrapes the surface of Rickey’s lifetime list. The very nature and environment he worked in, more importantly how he reacted to it, is a constant reminder to anyone seeking to develop anything in today’s game of baseball (or otherwise) that your surroundings do not always represent reality. Whether it was the color of one’s skin dictating their right to partake in a National Pastime or the place of statistics in a historically intuitive game. Branch Rickey is a modern baseball executive who just happened to operate nearly a century ago. Those familiar with the ostracization which many analytical extremists faced not long ago are well acquainted with the backlash Rickey faced implementing his futuristic ideologies. 

Born in Stockdale, Ohio to a family limping through a life dedicated to two things: Their Methodist faith and their vegetable farm. From these simple beginnings, the Rickey family grew into great notoriety. Much later in life, Branch Rickey’s niece, Elizabeth Rickey made a tremendous contribution to the downfall of David Duke a white supremacist, Neo-Nazi member of the Louisiana house of representatives. One journalist familiar with Rickey’s work described Duke as “both more sinister than ordinary redneck racists and far more politically savvy”. Elizabeth Rickey’s willingness to put her conscious above her party and tail Duke to a Neo-Nazi convention in Chicago where she obtained evidence of his vial activity and prevented him from achieving Louisiana governorship in 1992, virtually sinking his political career. Her work is reminiscent of her uncle’s greatest accomplishment many years prior, and a later landmark in Rickey family lore. 

Branch Rickey graduated high school in 1899, progressing to Ohio Wesleyan University playing catcher for the baseball team while working toward an arts degree. After graduation, while playing minor league baseball, Rickey taught Shakespearean English and History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, coaching both baseball and football for the school, football being another sport he worked in throughout his younger years. A promising baseball player, he agreed to a contract that would make him a Cincinnati Red for the 1904 season. Though this wouldn’t last long. The Reds released Rickey after discovering he refused to play on Sundays. Soon after, the Chicago White Sox acquired Rickey in the draft the following season however were uninterested in his services for the same reason the Reds balked and traded him to the St. Louis Browns. Here Rickey would make his first major league appearance. However, immediately following that appearance, June 16, 1905 (refusing to debut until he fulfilled his coaching duties with Alleghany), he had to leave the team to care for his ill mother, not returning until the following season. 

1906 saw Rickey as a replacement-level backstop. Through 65 games, he slashed .284/.345/.393, before being sold to the New York Highlanders and eventually the Yankees. In New York, Rickey couldn’t match even his previous season’s level of production, prompting a change of career. While Rickey didn’t leave baseball behind completely, he began both taking and teaching law classes in preparation for attending the University of Michigan to study law. In 1908, a year before he began his studies, Rickey was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Unfazed, amid his studies Rickey requested the opportunity to coach the school’s baseball team, petitioning his previous associates to submit letters of recommendation to Athletic Director Philip Bartelme. Bartelme hired Branch in 1910 upon the improvement in his health, claiming it was only “to put a stop to those damn letters that come in every day.” Rickey graduated from the University of Michigan in 1911 and fled to Boise, Idaho where he opened up his law practice. Rickey’s practice was not very successful. Whilst working in Boise, Rickey took a position as a scout working for Robert Hedges and the St. Louis Browns. Throughout two winters practicing he only acquired one client who wasn’t seeking a lawyer anyway. Despite his failure in law, his experience working for Hedges brought about a new opportunity. 

In 1913, Rickey accepted a full-time position with the Browns, entering baseball full time, long time. His new position was relatively undefined, Rickey contributed in a variety of different ways, though primarily as a scout in the Midwest and South. Later that season, Rickey took the reins as manager. As a unique leader, he led with a diverse array of tools and techniques blending lectures, drills, hearts to hearts, and analyses. In his grandson Branch B. Rickey’s own words “He was always lecturing, tutoring, motivating, cautioning and inspiring.” Ultimately, in any role, he played Rickey sought new ways to develop efficiency and discover untapped optimizations. That’s why he paid someone to sit behind home plate and track the number of bases each player collected as well as those players who forced them across each base (Why he didn’t use a spreadsheet, I do not know). This was the birth of evaluational baseball statistics, especially internally. 

Rickey’s tenure with the Browns became strained in 1916 when Phil Ball purchased the club from Robert Hedges. Rickey was out as manager and resumed his previous role as a scout. Many criticized Rickey’s approach in the dugout. Many considered him closer to an academic than a ballplayer, likely leading to insufficient continuity between management and the players. They may have been correct, only that was more to his benefit than not. Over on the National League side of St. Louis, the Cardinals were too under new ownership. Newly minted owner Sam Breadon, a car dealer who made his money selling Pierce-Arrow vehicles, successfully pried Rickey from the Browns bringing him crosstown to become a Cardinal.

In 1917, Branch Rickey became the Cardinal’s President. Here, he found himself in the dugout once again, but not before spending two seasons in the front office exclusively. Within these two seasons was time spent at war. In 1918 World War One borrowed Rickey from the Cardinals where he served as a major in the US Chemical Corps alongside Captains Ty Cobb and Christy Matthewson. He returned from France in late December of 1918. Come 1919 Rickey was back in St. Louis full time. At this point, the Cardinals were in dire shape. This was Rickey’s first season in the dugout as the Cardinals skipper, a change which he made himself to cut costs. In an attempt to communicate more status than he (or the Cardinals) had at the time he decorated his office with his wife Jane’s family heirloom rugs. 

Despite little to show for his time as the Cardinals manager, one notable byproduct was the institution of the iconic birds and bat logo. While speaking at a church in Ferguson, Missouri Rickey spotted cardboard cardinals displayed on a branch – table decorations. Shortly thereafter, the image was adopted as the team’s logo. Beyond graphic design, Rickey was again generally unsuccessful in the dugout. Heavily criticized he was deemed a poor leader, however, he remained manager through the first half of 1925 until he was fired by Sam Breadon, who acquired majority ownership of the team in 1920. While he remained general manager (then a business manager), Rickey was displeased with the decision, however, Breadon insisted this was for the best, telling Rickey “I am doing you the greatest favor one man has ever done to another.” That was likely the greatest understatement of Breadon’s career.

A great deal of Rickey’s frustration was derived from his inability to compete financially with rich teams (Something we hear about a lot today). However, now that Breadon was the majority owner, Rickey had a bit more money to inject into his club. Between 1920 and 1921 Rickey’s Cardinals purchased three minor league teams: The Houston Buffaloes, the Fort Smith Twins, and later the Syracuse Stars. Rickey intended to use these clubs as feeder teams for the Cardinals, making talent much more economical as well as providing means to unify Cardinals talent. Players could now be developed the Cardinal Way, creating consistency throughout the organization. And that’s just what Branch Rickey had created. For the first time, a baseball team was an organization – not just a club. Now able to sign players from a much younger age without immediately placing them on the major league roster, Rickey took the Cards from crisis to baseball superpower developing names such as Pepper Martin, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Joe Medwick, and later Hall of Famer Stan Musial. Less than a decade after Rickey went to the front office full time, the Cardinals had appeared in five World Series (including their first since 1888) winning three from 1926 through 1934. Branch Rickey had demonstrated grandly how he was able to adapt to a less than ideal situation and innovate to not just endure, but prosper. 

The farm system was not without criticism. One of Rickey’s biggest opposers was Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis was concerned that Rickey’s plan would destroy the minor leagues, he wanted to retain minor league player’s right to freedom and remove their affiliation with parent clubs. He made multiple attempts to disband the Cardinals organization. Many of his reasons for preventing this bureaucracy and hierarchy was that such a structure would create a ceiling for skilled players in organizations with high concentrations of talent. In 1938, Landis took action against Rickey. At this point, maybe he should have. Branch Rickey controlled entire leagues including the Arkansas-Missouri and Nebraska State Leagues. The Cardinals and their affiliates were fined at least $2,000 each, many players were deemed free-agents and barred from resigning with the Cardinals for three years. Landis’ aforementioned arguments began to dissolve when Rickey made his case. “If it is a crime to get jobs for young ballplayers then I don’t know what to say.” Rickey also noted that many of these teams weathered the Great Depression only because of their affiliation with St. Louis. He was right. A couple of decades later when television became prolific, attendance dwindled at lower levels. Without their parent clubs, even today, minor league teams would not survive. Among the players deemed free agents by Commissioner Landis was three-time all-star Pete Reiser (whose all-star seasons bookended three years of World War Two military service). These all-star seasons were with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his landing spot after he departed the Cardinals organization. This was intended to be a gentleman’s agreement between Branch Rickey, and a protégé, then Dodgers general manager, Larry MacPhail, who would eventually return Reiser. Of course, when Reiser’s true talent was exposed, it became impossible for MacPhail to keep his promise. Ultimately, between MacPhail and Landis, little could be done. In 1940, Branch Rickey was in control of 800 players. 

Despite an incredible run, his time as a Cardinal was coming to a close. His relationship with owner Sam Breadon was deteriorating, much of it financially founded. At this point, the height of his baseball career, Branch Rickey considered moving into insurance, as a top executive with a frim. Alas, he remained in baseball, though not in St. Louis. St. Louis bid Rickey farewell with another World Series title in 1942 driven by homegrown stars Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. When Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Larry MacPhail went off to war, Branch Rickey filled the void for the 1943 season. Despite being a competitive team in the last few years, Rickey felt the Dodgers were growing old and needed to be rebuilt (Unfortunately there’s no quote I found where Rickey used the term rebuild, but I’m sure he thought of it). Dumping what he felt to be old talent by the pound, he earned the nickname “El Chapo”. “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.” He said. Rickey’s reputation of innovation and firsts continued in Brooklyn and if anything he turned it up a notch. It was here he hired the first full-time statistician, opened the first spring training facility, and introduced batting helmets, batting cages, tees, and pitching machines. Needless to say, Rickey’s top priority was development.

In 1947, Branch Rickey hired the first team statistician. Allan Roth was brought in to provide quantifiable insights for Rickey and the Dodgers. He went on to substantiate on-base percentage’s superiority to batting average. In addition, Roth also went on to prove the benefits of the platoon strategy statistically. Moneyball: 15 years before Billy Beane was born. 

While spring training existed, Rickey changed it forever. Initially a handful of weeks designated for getting in shape, Rickey transformed the time into an opportunity to train, instruct, and develop as an entire organization uniformly. Specifically, believe it or not, baseball activities were at last integrated into spring training. He leased a naval base in Vero Beach, FL after reaching an agreement with the city. Thus, in 1948, 550 Dodgers players arrived in Florida to begin eight weeks of baseball training. The group was organized by both numbers and colors. It was here in spring training that Branch Rickey introduced countless training aids including the batting helmet, batting cages, tees, as well as pitching machines. All of which were intended to reduce the wear and necessity for pitchers in batters’ training. It is worth noting that many of these devices were first used by Rickey while he was coaching with the University of Michigan. 

It didn’t last long, however, one innovation Branch Rickey toyed with that even today isn’t used in major league baseball is the electronic strike zone. In 1950 Rickey promoted a General Electric device that used mirrors and photoelectric cells to automatically call balls and strikes. The device never gained traction rightfully so, it was primitive, to say the least. The device couldn’t even operate during night games. 

When most people hear the name Branch Rickey, regardless of their baseball knowledge their first thought is Branch Rickey’s most adventurous and meaningful innovation. When Rickey sought out to break baseball’s color barrier he did so intending to make America’s pastime American. He intended to institute a righteous game. At the beginning of the century, while with the Ohio Wesleyan Baseball team in 1903 Charles Thomas was denied entry into the team’s accommodation. Rickey fought tooth and nail, eventually getting Thomas admitted. Rickey never forgot that moment. Of it, he said, “I’ve never felt so helpless in my life”. His grandson said, “It was a lingering sin in his mind.” His drive to break baseball’s colour barrier was born of many motivations. His faith played a role, as did his interest in increasing crowd sizes, he remained a businessman. But most of all, Branch Rickey wanted to do what was right. He maintained that he was merely interested in fielding a winning team, however, that public narrative existed only as a smokescreen to reduce backlash. He was a man who went to the end of the earth to accomplish what needed to be done, but never did he sacrifice his principles.

In 1945, two years after confiding his plan with the Dodgers board of directors, seeking permission to search for the right man to break baseball’s color barrier, the search was complete. Throughout this process, Rickey was completely secretive. Board members were restricted from discussing the matter with even their families. Before completing his search Branch Rickey had founded the United States League which was a covert operation to scout talent staged as another division of the existing Negro Leagues. Even scouts and players were unaware of the league’s actual basis. The league only lasted a few weeks in 1946, but by that time Rickey found his man: Jackie Robinson.

Rickey was drawn to Robinson as he restrained from drinking and smoking. He was educated, but not without a temper. When Jackie Robinson met Branch Rickey, Robinson was unaware of what was about to happen. Robinson was under the impression he was being recruited for a roster spot on a Negro League team. After Rickey revealed his intention, he challenged Robinson by posing as racist players and fans for hours, trying to drive Robinson to anger, or disorder. 

Once Rickey was convinced Jackie was up to the momentous challenge that lay ahead, he became a Dodger before their parting that day. In 1947, after a year in the minor leagues, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier paving the way for a better future not only in baseball but throughout America. While Branch Rickey only played a minor role, he had contributed to successfully integrating baseball, breaking the color barrier. Further solidifying his intention, in a selfless act, he encouraged Cleveland to sign Larry Doby who would proceed as the first African American player to take the field in the American League. Rickey wanted to show that baseball’s color barrier was not cracked, it had fallen. He wanted universal, not isolated progress.

Shortly after his most impactful contribution to the game, Branch Rickey was on his way out of the Dodgers front office. His contract became too expensive for the Dodgers, and he found himself tackling another reclamation project. In Pittsburg, Rickey didn’t make the same organizational changes he did in Brooklyn or St. Louis. However, he made two noteworthy decisions. In 1953, he mandated the Pirates not only step into the batter’s box but also take the field wearing protective helmets. The driving force behind Rickey’s decision was the stock which he held in the manufacturer of the helmets. While players only wore helmets in the field for a few weeks, batting helmets remain atop hitters’ heads today. The other major decision Branch Rickey made in Pittsburgh was seemingly small. He sent Howie Haak to scout players throughout the Caribbean in his final season with the pirates, 1955. This resulted in the powerhouse Pirates of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Along with the acquisition of Roberto Clemente, Branch Rickey, albeit indirectly, built those teams, laying the foundation years prior. 

After his health and perhaps a bit of disinterest with the Pirates, dictated an early retirement, Rickey entered a consulting role from which he began developing plans to establish a third major league. Four years later, Rickey sold his stake in the Pirates and founded the Continental League in 1959. While Branch Rickey remained motivated to see its inauguration, the league only lasted through 1960, with play scheduled for the following, unrealized 1961 season. Instead of adopting a new league, both the American and National Leagues expanded in 1961 and ‘62 respectively. The American League welcomed the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators, a year later the National League introduced the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s. This expansion killed the Continental League, which was intended to meet the increasing demand for baseball in newly developed metropolitan areas. By 1993, each city had a Major League team except for Buffalo. 

Branch Rickey returned to the Cardinals one last time as a senior consultant. However, his two years in the front office were marred by discomfort and power struggles. General manager Bing Devine felt undercut by Rickey. Devine was fired after the Cardinals failed to meet expectations in 1964, however after late-life earned the team the World Series title, and Devine’s methods were proven to have been successful, leading to Rickey’s termination. 

Three years after his final departure from the Cardinals, Branch Rickey collapsed while speaking during his introduction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and after spending 26 days in a coma, died of heart failure. 

Branch Rickey was unquestionably baseball’s greatest innovator and thinker. He changed the game in ways we cannot begin to imagine. The game would not be the same as it is today without his contributions. His ingenuity, coupled with his forward-thinking and contrarian personality is a road map for anyone in today’s game. A game of innovation, all thanks to Branch Rickey. 

For more information on Branch Rickey, among the many great existing resources, some particularly fascinating and insightful rabbit holes include SABR’s bio on Rickey, as well as both his Wikipedia and National Baseball Hall of Fame pages. For more specifics on his playing and managerial days, see Baseball-Reference