Kindred Spirits, Humble Heroes: Branch Rickey and William Wilberforce
April/May 2007 – The Abolitionist Examiner
by George W. Nicholson
Originally published by The Independent Institute.
Branch Rickey was a baseball man, through and through. During more than a half century in the game, he brought remarkable players and World Series championships to three great cities, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh, and countless innovations to the game of baseball, many of which still abound.
Rickey’s story, however, is not just a baseball story. It is a story of vision, courage, and service, a story not unlike that of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce as became evident on March 30th, when an historic panel was held at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The distinguished panel, moderated by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, focused its attention on baseball and freedom. Rickey’s grandson, also Branch Rickey, is president of the nation’s top minor league, the Pacific Coast League. He was on the panel too.
On the following day, Major League Baseball hosted in Memphis the first Civil Rights Game between the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians. As Baseball Commissioner Allan Selig notes, “This game is designed to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most critical and important eras of our social history. I am proud of the role that Major League Baseball played in the Movement, beginning with Jackie Robinson's entry into the big leagues.” (The game was televised on ESPN.)
The panel was heard and the game was played in observance of the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Selig says, “[Rickey] was not only the greatest sports and baseball executive of the 20th century, but his bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues will forever stand as baseball’s proudest moment.”
There are other compelling reasons to reflect on the similarities between Branch Rickey and William Wilberforce. Among them is a new television documentary and two movies, one just out and another to follow later this year. HBO will telecast a two-hour documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Rickey and Robinson, on July 11. The movie already out is Amazing Grace. As millions of moviegoers know, it recounts Wilberforce’s resolve to abolish slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. The movie that is yet to come, tentatively entitled Mr. Rickey and Mr. Robinson, stars Robert Redford as Rickey. It will be released this fall and recount Rickey’s resolve to integrate major league baseball in the 20th century. The common determination of these two uncommon men changed the course and culture of two nations, Wilberforce’s England, and Rickey’s America.
Wilberforce fought to make natural rights the law. He introduced a bill in the House of Commons to abolish slavery in 1791. Each year, thereafter, he did the same thing. In 1807, things changed. His bill passed. It received prompt royal assent. Thus, two hundred years ago, this very year, Wilberforce finally made his mark. He did not then tire or tarry. He labored yet another quarter century to aid the slaves he helped to free.
Wilberforce's life-long efforts in service of slaves took root following an epiphany he had in 1785. Those efforts were informed by John Newton, a former slave-ship captain whose own, earlier epiphany had turned him from slave running to soul saving. Newton, by the time he talked with Wilberforce, was an ordained Anglican minister. He had been affected profoundly by Christian evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley, and by Methodism. Newton is best known for his hymn, Amazing Grace, which, long after he was gone, became an anthem, as we all know, for America’s Civil Rights Movement.
Branch Rickey had his own epiphany in 1903 when he, as a 22-year-old head coach, took his Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team to South Bend to play Notre Dame. When the team arrived at the old Oliver Hotel to check in, the hotel manager said, according to Rev. Bob Olmstead, a Methodist minister in Palo Alto, “‘I have rooms for all of you – except for him’—and he pointed to the team’s catcher, Charley Thomas, who was black.
“‘Why don’t you have a room for him,’ Rickey asked.
“‘Because our policy is whites only.’
“Rickey responded, ‘I’d like to have Charley stay in my room. Can you bring in a cot?’ After long deliberations, the innkeeper relented. Rickey sent the ball players to their rooms. But when he got to his room Charlie Thomas was sitting on a chair sobbing. Rickey recounted later, ‘Charlie was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands. He looked at me and said, “It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin, it’s my skin, Mr. Rickey!”’ Years later those hands were the healing hands of a highly successful dentist, Dr. Charles Thomas. He never forgot his coach and Branch Rickey never forgot that experience.”
As did Wilberforce’s 1785 awakening, Rickey's 1903 awakening drove him for the remainder of his life. The evils the two men despised were two sides of the same coin. Wilberforce confronted slavery, while Rickey challenged its bitter residue, Jim Crow.
Rickey would labor for decades, not to make law, as had Wilberforce, but to change his game and, in doing so, to lift the minds and to soften the hearts of an entire culture. Rickey’s goal was etched in his soul. He was determined to bring dignity and integrity to his game. He was going to integrate major league baseball.
In 1944, after becoming president of the Dodgers, Rickey told Red Barber, the Dodgers’ radio announcer, “For 41 years, I have heard that young man [Charles Thomas] crying. Now, I am going to do something about it. . . . I am going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
Rickey meticulously planned his move. He left nothing to chance as he sought just the right time and the best place. Just three years later—44 years after South Bend—Rickey ignored the unanimous opposition of the other 15 major league team owners and signed Robinson to play the 1947 season at Ebbets Field. Abraham Lincoln, in a Mathew Brady photograph, seemed to stare down on them from over Rickey’s left shoulder.
Looking back, it is now apparent that Rickey, solitarily, incrementally, and inexorably, conceived and crafted a series of events as complex as a symphony, and harmoniously conducted a vast orchestra of people, stationed strategically in more than a dozen quite different cities, to make his mark. He filled the previously blank notes in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, “All men are created equal,” and gave them resilience and resonance. Rickey’s was the first major concert in a series of concerts that would conclude, ultimately, in a funeral dirge for "Jim Crow" laws.
Rickey’s baseball symphony was intricate and simple, all at once. While difficult to conduct, it was music to the ears of Jim Crow’s millions of black conscripts. (For a detailed analysis of Rickey’s complex symphony, see Robert D. Behn, “Branch Rickey as Public Manager: Fulfilling the Eight Responsibilities of Public Management” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, p. 1, January 1999.)
Literally, Rickey’s temerity and tenacity explicitly presaged the use in America of the theories of non-violence utilized by both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not surprisingly, some contemporary sportswriters called Rickey the “Second Great Emancipator” (after Lincoln). Grantland Rice, perhaps America’s most respected sportswriter of his day, declared without a blush, “Next to Abraham Lincoln, the biggest white benefactor of the Negro has been Branch Rickey.”
Born to rural America, Rickey was of immense faith. So was Robinson. Their shared faith, Methodism, united and strengthened them. The founder of their faith and staunch abolitionist, John Wesley, had, long before, similarly and significantly influenced Wilberforce, Newton, and Whitefield. Perhaps, someday, someone more acutely attuned to religious studies may be able to explain why Methodism came to wield such authority, on both sides of the Atlantic, spanning four centuries. No one can doubt that it has.
Rickey knew about all of this. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, a Methodist school, in 1904. He was an “A” student, occasional faculty member, athletic director, and coach. In his later life, he wrote, “Ohio Wesleyan has been very largely responsible for whatever good is in me, and is to be credited for whatever good I have done.” Throughout his life, he tried to inspire others, to be good, and to do good, always. As one example, he helped found and fund the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the largest interdenominational, school-based Christian sports organization in the United States today.
Manifestly, Rickey’s faith was the touchstone for his quest to transform baseball and America. It gave him the tenacity and the toughness necessary to destabilize Jim Crow. Similarly, Wilberforce’s faith was the touchstone for his quest to transform law, Britain, and its Commonwealth. It gave him the tenacity and the toughness necessary to abolish slavery.
Like Wilberforce before them, two remarkable men, Branch Rickey, a white lawyer, and Jackie Robinson, a black athlete, peacefully—but without government incentive or intervention—changed baseball and the nation, the year before President Harry Truman ordered the military desegregated, in 1948; seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954; eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her Montgomery bus seat in 1955; 10 years before President Dwight Eisenhower utilized the 101st Airborne to enable the Little Rock Nine to attend Central High School in 1957; 16 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during his 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom;” 17 years before Congress and the President adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and 18 years before Congress and the President adopted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU for a quarter century, observed, “But before all that happened . . . a quiet drama was beginning in a small office in Brooklyn, New York, a drama that one observer later would call ‘perhaps the most visible single desegregation action ever taken.’” (“Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, Precursors of the Civil Rights Movement,” World and I, March 2003.)
That quiet drama may never have happened but for the shared grief Charles Thomas and Branch Rickey endured in South Bend in 1903.
Many years later, Thomas said, “From the very first day I entered Ohio Wesleyan University, Branch Rickey took special interest in my welfare. As the first Negro player on any of its teams, some of the fellows didn’t welcome me too kindly, though there was no open opposition. But, I always felt that Mr. Rickey set them straight. During the three years that I was at Ohio Wesleyan, no man could have been treated better. When we went on trips, Mr. Rickey was the first one to see if I was welcome in the hotel where we were to stop. On several occasions, he talked the management into allowing me to occupy a double room with him and his roommate, Barney Russell.”
Robinson later echoed Thomas, “When I heard that story, I gathered new hope. If forty-five years ago Mr. Rickey believed that a man deserved fair treatment regardless of his race or color, there was no reason to believe he changed. The more I learned about Branch Rickey, the more pleased I was that I was playing ball for him, was a part of his organization, and I wanted to show him I was capable of handling any situation into which he might drop me. I had never known a man like him before. Like [Clyde] Sukeforth [a Dodgers scout], I found myself admiring him, glad to be around him, and ready to do whatever he wanted me to do.” (Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, with Wendell Smith, 1948.)
Rickey’s impact did not end when he signed Robinson to play for the Dodgers in 1947. Emmett Ashford heard the good news while listening to the radio at a segregated Army base in Louisiana. He resolved to be the first black umpire in the big leagues. Two decades later, in 1966, the year after Rickey died, Ashford finally umpired his first major league game. It was in the nation’s capitol. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was there. Until they became convinced he really was an umpire, Secret Service agents denied Ashford admittance to the stadium. He was able to make his way to the field just moments before the game’s first pitch.
Over family resistance, Ashford had discarded security for an umpire’s dream. The entire Ashford family rejoiced when that dream came true. Rickey surely would have joined in had he lived.
Rickey would have liked Ashford. Like Robinson, he was a mature, determined, and well educated Southern Californian. Ashford had been elected president of his high school class and hired as a cashier at the local supermarket. He shined shoes to pay for his college education. Both Rickey and Ashford gave up security for their game. Ashford gave up a post office job, just as Rickey had given up his law practice decades earlier. (Yale Kamisar, “The A Student Who Gave Up the Law for Baseball,” Law Quadrangle Notes, 48, University of Michigan Law School (Summer 1997).)
Ashford’s story is an exciting one. He was an energetic and entertaining umpire, one of but a handful who brought fans to the ballpark. He made it to the pinnacle of his game when he umpired an All-Star Game and a World Series not long before retiring. It had not been easy. A telling bump in Ashford’s road came while he was still in the minor leagues. One team’s manager was angry over a call Ashford made. His anger was apparent during the next day’s pre-game exchange of line-up cards. He told Ashford, one of the game’s three umpires, “‘It’s not you I’m mad at, Emmett, it is the other two guys.’
“The crew chief, Cesar Carlucci, who worked nearly 1,000 games with Ashford, interrupted, ‘What are you talking about?’ he said.
“‘Not you, the other two,’ the manager said.
“‘Who the hell are the other two?’
“‘Abe Lincoln, for freeing them, and Branch Rickey for bringing them into baseball.’” (Steve Jacobson, Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball—and America, chapter 12, “Forever Is Not Too Long To Wait,” 2007; and see Larry Gerlach, The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires, final chapter, “Emmett Ashford,” 1994.)
As I began, so I shall close, by noting this is a good time to reflect on the similar, compelling stories of two remarkable men, Branch Rickey and William Wilberforce. While we may reflect on the two men because of Prof. Ogletree’s Baseball and Freedom Panel and Major League Baseball’s first annual Civil Rights Game, both in Memphis, on March 30-31, the HBO documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers on July 11, and two new movies, Amazing Grace and Mr. Rickey and Mr. Robinson, we must reflect on the two men because they are heroes and, unfortunately, heroes are no longer taught in too many colleges and universities.
Fortunately, free people find ways to educate themselves, express themselves, sustain their culture, and preserve their heroes, despite curricular contrivance. Free people find ways and means to recall heroes—men such as Branch Rickey and William Wilberforce—who validate their faiths and with that, humility, grace, and glory.
Such heroes may be gone from too many of our schools, but they remain with us. Such heroes stand tall for us still, in our baseball games, on our televisions, in our movies, and in our books. (Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, rev. 2007 and Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman, 2007.) And, while heroes may no longer be taught formally, their transformational deeds still, and will always, inspire and enable us as a free people to reach beyond ourselves, just as did they.
The clergy may also help us to remember great men. Dr. Ralph Sockman, Minister Emeritus of Christ Church, Methodist, New York City, did just that during his Branch Rickey eulogy in 1965. Heroes were no problem for Dr. Sockman. He knew his life-long friend was a hero and said so, “Branch Rickey has been called the master mind of baseball. His vision made him that. But, he was also the master heart of baseball . . . . [H]e made goodness attractive to others.” Isn’t that true of all heroes? Isn’t that what we must again teach our children?
George W. Nicholson is Associate Justice, Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, State of California, Adjunct Research Fellow with the Independent Institute’s Center on Law and Justice in Oakland, Calif.