Branch Rickey's courage, foresight in integrating baseball recalled

This is my last column for this year. It is being written on the 20th of December. Obviously, the subject matter should pertain to time. The most profound writing on time appears in Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3. However, when you have broadcast sports since 1930, you have learned from observation the impact of time on the event as well as upon the athlete. Forty years ago Jackie Robinson broke the color line in modern major league baseball. A new commissioner, seeking ways to add new promotions to the game, declared this 40th year to be dedicated to Robinson. Much was made of Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947. The publicity drums beat during spring training, on opening days, and into the season. Then the novelty wore off and nothing more was heard. (All promotions and publicity campaigns are soon squeezed dry and cast aside. A short time and it is over).

To repeat, this is written on Dec. 20, Branch Rickey's birthday. He was born in 1881. During the time of the Jackie Robinson salutes I didn't hear much about Rickey.

Make no mistake: I rejoiced in all that was written, said, done in memory of Jackie. He richly merited it. I was the broadcaster at Brooklyn when he came. He was the most exciting baseball player, especially on base, I ever saw. He was sentenced by Rickey to silence, no answering back, his first three years. To me, that was his greatest achievement. He won more in the spirit than he did with his marvelous physical talents. Jackie well knew he was fighting for his race far more than for himself. He knew his task. He did it; 1947 and Jackie Robinson, the time had come.

But Robinson with all his talents - physical, mental, and spiritual - couldn't get in a big league park by himself, unless he paid his green money to white men for a seat in the stands. It was a basic but unwritten law that no black men were to invade this white man's province on the field. Robinson had a one-day tryout with the Boston Red Sox before Rickey ever heard of him. The Red Sox said they'd get in touch with him, but never did.

One white man was deeply troubled about this complete discrimination. In March of 1945, Branch Rickey was 64 and not in good health. He told me, ``If I am to do something about this, it is now time. And, I am now going to do something about it.''

His family at first opposed because of his health, and the certain knowledge of the abuse he would receive. He went ahead. He created as a cover the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and he sent his best scouts in search of black players for the black team.

But Rickey knew the search was for the black player - the man who not only could play well enough but would also have the spiritual strength, to play for the white Dodgers.

He convinced his fellow owners of the Dodgers. He risked destroying the Brooklyn franchise. Who could know what would happen when a black man was forced upon both white baseball and the public? There might have been serious trouble. People might have stayed away from the parks.

I know Rickey's decision was made in 1945, and set in stone as far as he was concerned. Martin Luther King Jr. was 16 and in high school. President Truman didn't order the armed forces to end segregation until 1948. The Supreme Court passed its Civil Rights Act on school discrimination in 1954. There were Orval Faubus in Arkansas in 1957, Ross Barnett in Mississippi in 1962, and George Wallace in Alabama in 1963 - all vehemently against integrated schools. These were troubled times.

Branch Rickey was a man ahead of his time. He went against all his white colleagues in baseball, and many continued to hold it against him for years and years, even though he made all of them richer in money and in playing personnel. Rickey didn't drink, he didn't curse, he was a devoted family man without a whisper of suspicion, he was highly intelligent, deeply religious, and for this many writers made fun of him.

Rickey and Robinson changed all athletics, and American history as well. On this Dec. 20, Rickey's birthday, let me write that one white man had the conviction and the courage to break the color line in baseball, had the ability to select the one black man who could and would do it, and supported that black man every troubled step of the way. Without Branch Rickey there would not have been Jackie Robinson in 1947.

On Rickey's birthday, I think it is time to remember.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.