Rickey recognized invaluable contributions of baseball wives

BRANCH Rickey, head man of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, had Jackie Robinson come to his office late in August 1945. Rickey had never seen Robinson play, but his best scouts had. They said Robinson had the physical abilities. Rickey now had to judge whether he had the spiritual strength to be the first black player in the big leagues. The two men shook hands and sat down on opposite sides of the sizable desk. The first question Rickey asked was, ``Do you have a girl?'' He encouraged Jackie to tell him about Rachel, the girl in California Jackie was planning to marry (and that fall did marry).

``When we get through today,'' Rickey said, ``you may want to call her, because there are times when a man needs a woman by his side.'' Then he said, ``The truth is, you are not a candidate for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. I have sent for you because I'm interested in you as a candidate for the Brooklyn National League club.''

Rickey believed in the strength and support and belief a husband received from his wife. His own marriage was long and fruitful. He never made a major decision without talking it over with his wife, Jane. Rickey well knew the constant temptations in a ballplayer's life. He understood that a wife had to run the home, raise the children, and send her husband to the ballpark in a composed frame of mind -- or there could be serious trouble.

Rickey always wanted his young players to be married or to get married. His first question to Robinson was his usual first question when he talked to a new player.

As Rickey was to say later (he had sentenced Jackie for his first three years not to answer back), no one knew the strain and trials better than Robinson's wife, Rachel. She was ``a tower of strength to lean on, and a constant guidepost . . . she was a great help.''

Rickey told me, ``When I have a player who is not performing as his record shows he should . . . , I ask his manager what's the matter. If he doesn't know, I ask the trainer. If he doesn't know, I send for the wife. I tell her we've got to get to the bottom of this or she and her husband are liable to go down to the minor leagues. I tell her there is something wrong with her husband and no matter what it is -- money, sex, quarrels, sickness, impending divorce -- we've got to have it come out so we can do something about it. And then I'd find it out.''

The worst part of baseball is the travel, the separations that are inevitable. Half the games must be played on the road. The player has his companions, his work in the games; but he has also his lonely hotel room. At all the parks there are women waiting. A player should hold in mind the sentence from the Lord's Prayer: ``And lead us not into temptation.''

But the wife, often a stranger in a new city, must stay home and do the best she can, especially if there are children. It is a lonely life for a baseball wife. Should there be many children, as with Bob Cerv, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle when they were together with the Yankees, the wives stay in the hometown all summer -- widows without the privileges.

Lylah and I were married March 28, 1931 -- 55 years ago. She gave me my career. She ran the house, raised our daughter, welcomed me home. I was often away six of the 12 months on baseball and football assignments. I knew it was lonely, but I didn't realize how completely lonely it was until she wrote her book last year, ``Lylah -- a Memoir.''

To make it harder for the wife, there is night baseball. A player might almost as well be on the road as at home playing under the lights. He must sleep as late as he can, get back to the park in midafternoon, then get home around midnight or later.

For me, the night games were the worst of all. I would come home to a house with my family asleep, and I'd be awake after working the game and driving an hour or more on high-speed highways.

I think by far the most dramatic year in baseball was 1947. That's when Robinson broke the color line at Brooklyn; when commissioner Happy Chandler suddenly suspended manager Leo Durocher of the Dodgers six days before the season opened as an aftermath of a bitter personal quarrel between Rickey and Larry MacPhail of the Yankees; of two exciting pennant races; and of a memorable World Series, with Cookie Lavagetto breaking up Bill Bevens's no-hit bid with two out in the ninth to win one game, and with Al Gionfriddo's catch of Joe DiMaggio's home run bid saving another, before the Yankees finally won out anyway in seven games. The Dodgers opened the season without a manager, and Rickey brought in his old friend, Burt Shotton, who was in retirement in Bartow, Fla.

In the book I wrote on that season, ``1947 -- When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball,'' here is the dedication:

``To baseball wives, who have the hardest jobs -- staying home, holding families together, waiting, hoping, sometimes doubting, but still believing in their husbands . . . no publicity . . . little appreciation.

``I don't know what the men in this book would have done the trying season of 1947 without: Jane Rickey, Rachel Robinson, Jean MacPhail, Mildred Chandler, Laraine Durocher, Elizabeth Harris, Mary Shotton, Hazel Weiss, Josephine Parrott, Dodger/Yankee wives, Lylah Barber.''

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