With the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first Major League game behind us, one question lingered in the back of my mind.
Countless articles, documentaries, books, and stories have been written about Jackie Robinson; his legacy has been cemented ever more by a beautiful tribute, noted in every corner of the American sports landscape (the #42 NASCAR Dodge had the now famous blue #42 emblem).
And even though the pre-game festivities were cordial and amicable – Mrs. Robinson being invited to share with us some important stories from the broadcasters’ booth – some wondered, as do I, why Marlon Wayans?
Someone asked rhetorically why was Spike Lee in that video tribute, which, to me, made sense since he’s an outspoken leader in the African American community, and, above else, a sports fan. I could make sense of that. But Wayans? First thought that came to my mind when I saw him was this.
At any rate. The real question I had regarding Jackie Robinson was the baseball managers and executives that made it possible for him to become the icon he is today.
So I looked it up.
Branch Rickey was the president of the Dodgers when he made the bold decision to purchase Robinson’s contract from the Negro Leagues.
From his Wikipedia entry:
Rickey’s most memorable act with the Dodgers, however, involved breaking baseball’s color barrier, which had been in place since the mid-1880s, not as a written rule, but merely a policy. This policy had continued under a succession of baseball leaders, including Landis, who was openly opposed to integrating Major League Baseball for what he regarded as legitimate reasons. Landis died in 1944, and that fact along with changing public attitudes presented an opportunity. On August 28, 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. On October 23, 1945, it was announced that Robinson would join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate, for the 1946 season. He would end up as the league’s batting champion, and led the Royals to a dominant league championship.
People noted that Rickey’s determination to desegregate Major League Baseball was born out of a combination of idealism and astute business sense. The idealism was at least partially rooted in an incident involving a team for which Rickey worked early on. An African-American player was extremely upset at being refused accommodation at the hotel where the team stayed because of his race. The business element was based on the fact that the Negro Leagues had numerous star athletes, and logically, the first Major League team to hire them would get first pick of the players at a reasonable price.
Five days before the start of the 1947 season, Rickey purchased Jackie Robinson’s contract from the minor leagues. Amid much fanfare, Jackie debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, becoming the first African-American to play in modern major league baseball.
Naturally, Jackie held Rickey in high regard, and upon his passing, Robinson said he felt as if he’d lost a father.
One interesting tidbit about Rickey was his failed attempt at launching an independent league.
From his NYTimes obit:
After leaving the Pirates, Mr. Rickey was appointed president of the newly formed Continental League. An hour after his appointment, he was conducting the league’s first meeting. The eight teams constituting the league were New York, Buffalo, Toronto, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Denver.
For nearly two years, it appeared that Mr. Rickey’s “dream” would be realized, but he was never able to get the league out of the dugout. The final blow was struck by the two existing major leagues.
And another was his lack of prowess on the diamond:
As a big-league player, Mr. Rickey did not amount to much. In a game against Washington in 1907, when he was catching for New York, there were 13 stolen bases charged against him. In 11 games he was charged with nine errors.
But Branch Rickey should be remembered for being the baseball executive with the greatest sense of integrity by purchasing Jackie Robinson’s contract.
“‘Jackie, this talk of organizing a Negro team in Brooklyn was only a cover-up for my real plans. I want you to be the first Negro player in the major leagues. …’”
Mr. Rickey brought the young Robinson to Montreal in the International League in 1946 and then to the Dodgers the following season, opening the way for numerous Negro stars who followed him into the major leagues.