WHAT would Branch Rickey say about baseball's plunge in public approval? I ask myself that question because if that sports legend were alive today, his words of wisdom on the subject would be eagerly sought out.
This highly principled gentleman -- who broke the color barrier when he brought Jackie Robinson up from the minors to play with Brooklyn -- would be a prize catch on all the talk shows. I can just hear Larry King trumpeting: ''And tomorrow night, Branch Rickey is going to tell us what is keeping the baseball crowds away!''
Rickey, a left-handed catcher with the St. Louis Browns in the teens, expressed his religious scruples at the time in a way that was rather unique: He refused to play on Sunday.
He first became an important figure in the baseball world when, as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he turned that team into a winner by developing a farm system of minor-league clubs that sent promising young players up to play with the Cards.
Rickey looked upon baseball as he did upon life -- he thought that both ''games'' should be played hard but fairly. He loved to win and he was a shrewd bargainer. But this Michigan law school graduate who, on occasion, delivered sermons to church groups, was known to be a man of character who couldn't be swayed from doing what he thought was right. What ridicule he had to take back in 1947 when he signed Robinson! Rickey was a target of taunts and even threats. But he stuck to his guns and became one of baseball's truly great heroes.
Rickey, I feel certain, would be full of wrath today. I think he would sum up baseball's problems in that authoritative voice of his in this way: ''It's the almighty dollar! Greed, greed, greed.''
On two occasions I brushed shoulders with Rickey (his players called this dignified man ''Mr. Rickey,'' while reporters came to refer to this highly respected fount of wisdom as ''The Mahatma'').
The first time was when Rickey came through my hometown in the late 1930s with the Cardinals, who were playing the University of Illinois baseball team in an exhibition game just before the regular major-league season began.
As a part-time reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (while I was attending law school at the university) I asked for an interview with Rickey. When I arrived in mid-afternoon at the hotel, I was told to wait, that Rickey was resting. After a while, he came down to the lobby and told me, rather impatiently, that he never gave interviews when he was on the road with the team. Then, seeing my disappointment, he did talk baseball with me for a few minutes.
I have no memory of what was said or whether I wrote anything afterward. But I wondered at the time what a man who looked and acted like a United States senator could be doing in hanging around with that scruffy bunch of Cardinals I had earlier talked to as they lounged around the hotel.
Much later, in January of 1963, I found myself in a descending New York hotel elevator with Rickey. It was late at night, and it was just the two of us as we came down from the top floor. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. He was so deep in thought it didn't seem the thing to do. But I shall always remember that ride with the man whose courageous act brought an end to segregation in baseball.
Today's baseball world of big bucks would astound and disgust Rickey. He put together the Cardinal team with only the few thousand dollars that the president of that club's organization, a car dealer, could supply. The players played for low salaries, but they knew there just wasn't much money available. So they played for the love of the game. Anyone who watched the famous ''Gashouse Gang'' play ball would remember the sheer joy they exhibited as they romped to pennants and World Series victories.