By Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera
Branch Rickey has been described as a deeply moral man who was equally committed to the game of baseball as he was to the people around him. Rickey served as the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1943 – 1950 and has one of the more storied careers in the history of the Major Leagues. Seemingly motivated by equal parts moral conviction, competitive spirit and business success, Rickey resolutely set out to bust open the racial barrier that had historically blocked baseball from fielding some of the nation’s best players.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has long been considered a defining American tradition. Baseball is America’s game, and since 1869 MLB has taken pride in fielding the players, coaches, and teams that history has come to remember as the best our nation has to offer. Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb have been memorialized as some of the game’s greatest athletes, but what of the nameless and faceless men who were refused the opportunity to compete, the thousands of able-bodied players who were never afforded the opportunity to play in the Bigs, not because of their skills, but because of their race? While segregation was slowly being adopted by ballclubs throughout the 1880s, by the time the century turned, black players were unofficially prohibited from playing in the MLB. For more than 60 years, generations of black players were excluded from playing in the pros.
In 1944 the culture of baseball began to shift. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of Baseball, had passed away in November of that year. Landis, who had held his position as Commissioner from 1920 until his death, was philosophically committed to segregation and firm in his belief that African American players shouldn’t play in the Major Leagues. In truth, as much as Landis played a key role in maintaining the color barrier in baseball, he wasn’t alone. Team owners, general managers, and players helped perpetuate the longstanding divide. However, after the death of Landis, the more open-minded Happy Chandler succeeded Landis as Commissioner at the same time that Branch Rickey was working to convince the Dodgers organization to sign a black player.
Rickey worked covertly and determinedly for years before signing the first black player. Even before Landis died, Rickey held secret meetings with the Dodgers brass to gain both opinions and blessings for his plan to sign a black player. The cautionary advice was to get the right guy, but the higher-ups trusted Rickey and believed in his larger strategy of breaking the color barrier. After all, in bringing an African American player to Brooklyn, Rickey would essentially open a pipeline of talent from the Negro Leagues. The first team to sign a black player would get the benefit of the doubt from subsequent players looking to jump to the Majors, but could also gain an entirely new and essentially untapped fan base. The Negro Leagues were the existing home for African American fans of baseball, but Rickey believed that doing away with segregation in the Major Leagues might bring more black fans to Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played their games. If nothing else, although radical, desegregation was a good business decision.
Aside from the economic and player benefits, for Rickey, the move was also the right thing to do, both morally and for his team. The Dodgers needed a top-flight player, he was profoundly committed to the ideals of equality, and some of the best athletes were playing ball in the Negro Leagues. Rickey had a commitment to his business, his team, and his conscience, as well as the gumption to act on it.
Branch Rickey put tremendous focus into finding a player who was not only a superior talent, but also had the fortitude to deal with the predicted backlash that would accompany breaking baseball’s longstanding color barrier. Jackie Robinson seemed the best pick. Robinson was a superior athlete, earning letters in four sports (track, baseball, football and basketball) during his two years at UCLA. He had served as an officer in the Army, and was open to the challenge of being a trailblazer. A unique blend of aggression and temperance, Robinson’s understanding and ambition positioned him to endure the risks associated with playing in the Majors. Through many conversations, Rickey went to great lengths to understand Robinson’s personality. But he also made it clear to Robinson that the role he would need to play was a difficult one. Becoming the first black player in the Major Leagues would not be easy; Rickey made certain that Robinson knew he could not act on the anger that he would feel from the racist comments and acts inevitably directed his way. Before the papers were signed, Robinson agreed.
In 1946 Robinson was given one year with the Dodgers farm team out of Montreal to become acclimated to the pros. Robinson became the first black player in the International League (i.e., the minor league) since the ban on African American players was made in 1890. The criticisms and jeers were fast and furious. Immediately the Dodgers had to move their spring training facilities because of segregation laws and attitudes in Florida. However, Robinson, Rickey and the entire Dodgers organization were committed. One year later, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the end of the 1947 season, Robinson was named rookie of the year for the league. By 1949, he was MVP. In the years between 1947-1956 the Dodgers won six pennants and a World Series with some of the greatest black players to ever pick up a mitt. From Roy Campanella to Don Newcombe, Robinson was joined by a cast of African American players who will forever be remembered as some of baseball’s greatest players and enduring men.
Rickey proved to be something of a “genius.” His move not only pushed the Brooklyn Dodgers into becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of the Major Leagues, it also led to the wholesale desegregation of professional baseball. Rickey turned the conventional wisdom of the time on its head. He found a way to cut through the existing rationalizations for not signing a black player, and helped usher in an era of unprecedented success for the Dodgers. His effort changed the game, making him arguably the most influential general manager in the history of baseball.
From the Editor: Business decisions are often about culture and being unafraid to do the right thing in the face of resistance. Ultimately, having the vision and committment to embrace progress are the best bets any socially responsible manager can make. The combined talents and personal courage of both Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey resulted in a winning duo.
Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera co-author a regular column in the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Dan and Joe are also managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of forthcoming book, Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass.
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