Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Just Who was Branch Rickey?

He was born Wesley Branch Rickey, the son of Frank W. and Emily Thompson Rickey, born in Stockdale, OH on December 20, 1881. His nickname was: Mahatma. (Kicked or tripped over the bucket for the last time on December 9, 1965.)

Just who was Branch Rickey and why was he involved in the major leagues?

He played for the St. Louis Browns in 1905 but was known for his inability to catch the ball. And yet he was a catcher in the major leagues.
He set a major league record for stolen bases allowed in one game by a catcher at 13. Talk about unbreakable records, this one distinguishes it's owner significantly.

Is this how he "caught" someone's eye, by setting this record? Enough to allow him back into the Major Leagues?

It's been documented how demented the early owners of baseball franchises were so you have to think some owners had a penchant for rolling the dice, so to speak, and one of them took a chance. The owner may have lost a bet with someone (in the relatively small fraternity of owners) and could not go back on his word because every other owner knew.

How did the man get credit for pulling all the right strings to allow Jackie Robinson into the Major Leagues? A person who was penurious, not frugal, as a GM with the St. Louis Cardinals (during the "Gas House Gang" days). Somehow, got credit for signing Roberto Clemente to a professional contract. (Unfortunately, Clemente was signed merely as a way of preventing someone else in the division from signing him. We all know, Clemente, (known as "the Great One" to Latins everywhere) was later purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It's as if the major leagues allowed the name of Branch Rickey to be credited with signing Roberto Clemente because Rickey was known for his finding ways to let ethnics into the major leagues. He may have still been associated with the Dodgers but him being linked to Clemente, Wow! that's a story I'd like to hear.

Why has Major League Baseball went out of its way to allow Wesley "Branch" Rickey into the major leagues?

Legally there had to be lawyers swarming around the majors during this time. The game was beginning to look like something profitable. And society was taking a liking to it. The game conformed to society as well. Acknowledging no games and then double-headers (2 for the price of 1) on Sundays and having a day game for the "Ladies."

I ask these questions because I've read some baseball stories about Branch Rickey. Like the one in 1933. Rickey was the general manager of the St.Louis Cardinals and Ernie Orsatti, a Cardinal outfielder, demanded a raise of $500 which would have made his salary $5000. Orsatti was coming off a .336 season and he was usually on the leader board for stolen bases as well.

Rickey refused. When Orsatti entered the Cardinal GM's office, Rickey's telephone "rang," and the executive launched into an apparent two-way conversation with his Farm System operator. In a loud voice, for his guest to hear, Rickey indicated that he might have an outfielder ready to be sent down soon, then hung up.

The phone rang again, this time supposedly from a minor league GM, with a similar need for a soon-to-be-demoted outfielder. By the time Rickey got off the line. Orsatti's only demand was for a pen to sign the club's lowball offer sheet. Unknown to Orsatti , the telephone conversations were a charade Rickey acted out by using a foot pedal under the desk to trigger the rings of each non-existent call. (As told by Bill Veeck the former baseball owner of the Browns, White Sox and probably others as well.)

Now to be accused of doing something so lowdown as this and to still be allowed to remain in the major leagues further exploits the hypocrisy of this integrity thing baseball always likes to maintain.

In 1936, Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean, who won 96 gmes in his first 4 seasons, held out for $27,500. A $9000 raise from his 1933 pay. When Rickey refused, Dean upped the ante to $40,000.

Following the 1936 season, when Dean won 24 games, Rickey put the pitcher's name on the auction block and generated offers from $100,000 to $250,000 plus other players. Aware of being shopped, Dizzy demanded a $100,000 salary (in keeping with his demonstrated market value).

After the 1937 season, Branch Rickey sold Dean to the Chicago Cubs (is that what started one of the great rivalries in baseball history?) for $185,000 and 3 ballplayers worth $65,000 in salary. By selling a player contracted for only $18,000, the Cardinal executive (Rickey) personally pocketed several thousand dollars more than that $18,000 sum.

At the first sign of decline their clubs sold them. The organization not only gained from the sales, but the team payroll dropped. One clear consequence of the power farm systems gave to baseball's personnel managers was the odd pairings of rising average ages on big league rosters with a declining percentage of long-term veterans. In other words, management now had the means to squeeze major league playing careers at both ends.

The man given credit for building the minor league system was such a tyrannical, penny-pinching person that he created an even bigger monster in the game. That monster called Ill Will when it's between the player and his teams' executive/general manager. He showed how shrewd was profitable. If Ted Knight were alive, god rest his soul, he'd be the perfect guy for the part of The Branch Rickey Story. He'd only have to combine the Ted Baxter character on Mary Tyler Moore with Schmells, on Caddyshack. The author of: It's easy to grin/ when your ship comes in/ and you've got the stock market beat/ But the man worthwhile/ is the man who can smile/ when his shorts are too tight in the seat.

Branch Rickey was a crook, who had this Doctor Evil or perhaps even Lex Luther way of coming up with new promotions and this is where Jackie Robinson enters the picture.
There is an entire generation of baseball fans who think of Branch Rickey as the Mahatma, they think he initiated the breaking of the color line. That he was the only one who cared enough about integrating the African-American into the major leagues.

I don't think so.

I think Wesley "Branch" Rickey did everything for self-promotion.
I think Branch Rickey was the original Don King, without the absurd hairdo.
Because only in America could someone be so revered for being such a skinflint, selfish, self-promoting son-of-a-gun.

Depending upon your point of view, of course, I personally find it ironic that it is Wesley Branch Rickey who is the indelible mark on America's pastime. Instead of being the person responsible for uplifting the stain of breaking the color barrier (sooner) he just happened to be there when Jackie Roosevelt Robinson entered the majors in 1947. Rickey rode on Jackie's coattails and it was never ever the other way around.

The person who truly took this entrance into the major leagues to a level for the sake of other players and changed the game because of his heart and soul was Curt Flood. Curt Flood made playing the game even better than any player before him could have imagined.

Curt Flood deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for his selfless contribution to major league baseball. Because everything about the game today and from now on...oozes of Curt Flood and Hall of Fame inductee Marvin Miller.