Two remarkable men create racial justice

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson came from opposite sides to their historic meeting and cooperation.

Branch Rickey grew up in the midwest in a comfortable family able to help him go to college. His parents insisted he go to a Methodist college, so he went to Ohio Wesleyan where he was an athlete. Later he became baseball coach. The team was invited by Notre Dame to a game at South Bend, Indiana. Rickey's best player was his catcher, a Negro. When Rickey checked the team into the hotel, they refused the Negro; Rickey arranged for him to stay in his room. After settling his team he found the Negro player in his room crying and pulling at his skin, saying, if only it was white… Rickey said he never forgot that young man, who became a dentist.

Jackie Robinson's father abandoned his family soon after Jackie was born on a share cropper farm in Cairo, Ga. The owner of the farm had no use for a family without a strong man, so his mother gathered their belongings and her children to move to Pasadena, California, where she found jobs as a domestic. Her children learned to respond to racial slurs. They were active in church, and Jackie came to appreciate a new pastor, Karl Downes, who drew him away from a gang to concentrate on school work and athletics. He received an athletic scholarships to Pasadena Junior College then to UCLA where he lettered in four sports the same year, being a star in basketball and football. Baseball did not interest him.

Rickey after playing pro baseball briefly worked in management of teams. As manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for decades he developed the farm system that was a major inovation for professional baseball. In 1940 he was hired as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

With war Robinson enlisted in the Army and managed to attend Officers Candidate School to become a Lieutenant. At a base in Texas he refused to go to the back seat of a bus, knowing that Jim Crow laws did not apply on bases. He was court martialed and found not guilty. When discharged he worked briefly as athletic director of the Texas Methodist college where Karl Downes was president, Samuel Huston in Austin. He then joined the Monarch team in the Negro professional baseball league.

Branch Rickey secured the confidential agreement of the Directors of the Dodgers to hire a Negro, and talked his family into it. He sent team scouts looking for prospects. Then he told his chief scout, Clyde Sukeforth, to go to Chicago to evaluate a certain player named Robinson. If he thought him a good candidate, bring him to Brooklyn.

The resulting job interview is unlike any other. After introductions by the chief scout, Rickey led Robinson into every racial problem he might face. Rickey never used profanity except judas priest, but in this multi-hour interview he used every profanity ever used against Negroes. Tired, sweating, he said the only way this would work was not to respond to taunts, jeers, acts. He quoted Jesus. Then asked Robinson his reaction. After a long silence, Robinson quietly said, I think I can do that.

Robinson played excellent baseball for a year in Montreal, the top Dodger farm team. The next spring on the opening day of the baseball season, April 15, Jackie Robinson played as Dodger first baseman at Ebbets Field. He suffered indignities beyond belief, but his team mates rallied to help him. He felt the weight of his race on his shoulders, feeling that if he failed, no other African American would have a chance for many years. He did so well others were recruited soon after.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey remained friends as long as Rickey lived, and they are now enshrined in the baseball hall of fame.

The Ken Burns series Baseball tells this history more fully and vividly on three DVDs or programs, the ones for the1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. Several books tell their remarkable history and the 2013 film 42 tells that first year. In 42 Branch Rickey says to Robinson, "I'm a Methodist, you're a Methodist, God's a Methodist!"

Copyright © 2006, 2013 John F. Yeaman