As We Honor Robinson Let's Salute Rickey, Too

I must confess that as gratifying as the honoring of Jackie Robinson was to me - he was one of my baseball heroes - I was disappointed that the man who made Robinson's history-making accomplishment possible was pretty much left out of the celebration.

True, Branch Rickey, who brought Robinson up from the minors to play with Brooklyn and thus put this black athlete in place to break the color barrier in major league baseball, got some mention as the accolades were being bestowed on Robinson. Not enough, however, in my opinion.

Robinson richly deserved having his day. It was he who braved it out on those most-unfriendly, white-dominated baseball fields. But Rickey deserves his day, too.

As I recall that racial barrier-breaking event, back in 1947, Rickey was perceived as the real villain among the millions of white baseball fans who were enraged over blacks getting to play "their" big-league game.

Rickey didn't have to face the cruel jibes and insults on the ballfield that made every game torture for Robinson. But Rickey did share with Robinson the hate mail and the threats. Indeed, he was the chief target of the animosity coming from those in the white community who looked on him as a traitor. They were angered at Robinson for what they saw as an intrusion. But they detested Rickey.

So it was Rickey who opened the door for Robinson's heroic entry into what had always been a whites-only game. And it wasn't as if the Dodgers' general manager was leading a race for black baseball talent and got there first. No other baseball club was moving in that direction. Indeed, most of the baseball owners were implacably opposed to using black players and were among these who were most irate over Rickey's actions.

So, Rickey was willing to undergo this torment of criticism - for what? Oh, yes, I know those who say the reward in the end would be a lot of black talent that would strengthen Rickey's baseball team. And I think that may have been a consideration for him.

But the primary motivation, I believe, was simply this: Rickey, a good man, was doing what he thought was right. And he was willing to take the tremendous heat he knew he would get for helping bring equality to race relations in this country.

That's called courage. And that's why Rickey is a legend who, at some point, should be given some special recognition by baseball and the world.

YEARS ago, back in the 1930s, I interviewed Rickey - or, as ballplayers called him, "Mr. Rickey." He had once been a left-handed catcher for the St. Louis Browns. I doubt if he was called "Mr. Rickey" then. But the man I met lived up to that name. He was dignified, reserved, and, I clearly remember, more than a little scary. I could tell he had no time for foolish questions.

But I recall now how he somehow got on the subject of religion - not baseball! - and he told me that he was an active church member who had been also, on a few occasions, a minister. He talked about what he thought was right and what was wrong in life and what his values were. I knew when I left that I had been talking to someone with high personal standards - not just someone who put winning first.

For whites to stand up for blacks in this country hasn't ever been easy. And it was even more difficult to take such a position back when Rickey made his courageous decision to groom Robinson for a break-in into white-controlled baseball.

Somewhere about that time I paid a visit to that courageous Atlanta Constitution editor, Ralph McGill, who, in the face of tremendous public criticism in the South, was pushing for civil rights. That morning a cross had been burned on McGill's front yard.

So let's give three cheers for Jackie Robinson. And let's give three cheers for Branch Rickey, too.

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