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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

 What is history but a myth agreed upon?




Rickey didn’t free the slaves;

he stole them.

By John B Holway

            April 16 baseball marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, honoring Branch Rickey as one of the saints of baseball, if not American, history. 

It’s one of the great myths of baseball that have become so enshrined as “facts” that they are steadfastly believed more than the truth.  Robert Redford is planning a film on Rickey.  Will he feed the myth or challenge it?


John B Holway is author of Ted the Kid and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues.


          The next nickel Rickey pays for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, or Junior Gilliam will be the first.  These ex-Negro Leaguers led Brooklyn to five pennants in nine years, 1947-55, and Rickey snatched them all from their black owners for free.

“It’s like coming into a man’s store and stealing the goods right off the shelves,” said Cumberland “Cum” Posey, owner of the Washington Homestead Grays.

Rickey was not the game’s Abe Lincoln; he was its Jesse James.

The Jackie Robinson revolution was a blessing to black players.  But it was a disaster to black owners, who saw their life investments wiped out.

            Rickey did pay a pittance (reported at 1,000 to 3,000 dollars) for pitcher Dan Bankhead. 

However, when he tried to steal Monte Irvin from the Newark Eagles, whence he had stolen Newcombe, their glamorous owner, Effa Manley, threatened to sue.  Branch dropped Monte like a hot foul tip.  It never occurred to him to pay her a fair price for him.

His excuse was that Monte, just back from the Army, thought his skills had declined and had turned Rickey’s offer down.  There are several holes in this story.  First, whoever heard of a player, black or white, saying he didn't want to play in the Major Leagues because he wasn't good enough?  Sec, Monte had the best year of his life in 1946, leading the league with .411.  Third, in 1948 he batted .313 but allegedly felt he was at last ready for the majors.

The whites called the black owners racketeers.  Many of them were gambling kings; it was one of the few ways a black man could raise enough capital to buy a team -- without gamblers there would have been no Negro Leagues.  But Robinson’s owner, JL Wilkinson, was not a gambler.  Neither was Posey. 

When Rickey stole their players, he himself became a bigger racketeer thany any black owner had been.

Branch made a show of his Christianity.  He had promised his mother he would never play ball on Sunday; however this didn't prevent him from religiously depositing the Dodgers’ Sunday gate receipts in the bank every Monday morning.

There are several ways to live a Christian life.  One is not to play ball on Sunday.  Another is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  Branch Rickey passed the first test   He flunked the second cold.

He was not a revered Methodist saint.  He was a pious Methodist hypocrite.

When Rickey had been general manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1939 and ’42, there was some excitement in the press about signing black players to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, and other big league teams.  Rickey’s voice was notably silent.

Not until the death of hard-line Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 did Rickey feel it was safe to speak up.

There were many other players, mostly villains, in baseball’s integration drama:

Happy Chandler.  Rickey not only stole the players.  He stole the credit for stealing them.  That credit properly belonged to the commissioner who replaced Landis, AB “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky.  Blacks feared he would be a southern racist, but he surprised them by declaring on the morning of his election, “Hell, yes, if a black boy can make it on Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball.”  It was banner news in the black press and the green light for Rickey to begin his raids. 

Chandler paid the price for his courage.  As soon as the owners could, they fired him.  Rickey didn't raise a finger to help him. 

But Chandler’s hands were not clean either.  He fought all attempts to institute a long-overdue union for the players, who were paid a fraction of their real economic value (Joe DiMaggio received $30,000 the year he hit in  56 straight games).  Chandler never insisted that Rickey pay for the players he was plundering from the black leagues.  And he punished white players who jumped to Mexico in pursuit of mega-pesos there; it was all right for Rickey to raid the Negro Leagues for free, but not for Mexico to raid the big leagues by offering the players a better deal.

Bill Veeck.   The flamboyant owner of the Cleveland Indians followed Rickey into the market, buying Larry Doby from Manley for $10,000.  She was grateful to get it, although she said, “You know you would have paid me more if he had been a white boy.”  

Veeck reportedly paid Wilkinson $5,000 for Satchel Paige, who repaid Bill a thousand-folded by drawing sell-out crowds wherever he pitched and winning six crucial games as the Indians won the 1948 pennant in a playoff.  The cynical might say that Bill wouldn't sign Satch in ’47, when he was still under contract to the Monarchs, but waited until ’48 when the Monarchs were almost dead and Paige had left them. 

Scholars also debunk Veeck’s story that he had earlier tried to buy the Philadelphia Phils and stock them with Negro League stars.  This is now regarded as a great showman’s self-promoting hokum.

Cool Papa Bell.  The self-effacing Bell was one of several black veterans who patiently coached Robinson to make sure he would clear the big league hurdle; they knew that if he failed, it might be decades before a black would get another chance.  They told him he didn't have the arm or range to play shortstop and that he’d better switch to second base.  Bell, perhaps the fastest man to put on spiked shoes, also showed Jack the tricks of evading the tag and bouncing back to his feet, ready to take another base in case of an error.

Bell also scouted Ernie Banks and Elston Howard.  He was paid with a basket of fruit and ended his days as a janitor.  The Majors would hire only one black veteran as a coach, John “Buck” O'Neil.  The rest were cast aside as coaches, as they had been ignored in their prime years as players.  

Jackie Robinson.  He was just as self-centered as Rickey.  One of his first acts as a big leaguer was to sneer at the Negro Leagues for traveling by bus all night or staying in second-rate black hotels and said he was glad to be out of them.  It wasn't said in sympathy.  (“It wasn't our fault,” Manley retorted.) 

Not once did Jackie thank the owners who had kept the leagues alive through the Depression, giving him the showcase to jump to the majors.  Nor did he thank the veteran players, who had helped him enter the promised land while they stayed behind on Mt Pisgah and cheered his success.

Willie Mays was different.  “You were the pioneers,” he told a reunion of old-timers, “you taught me to survive, you made it possible for us.”  Robinson didn't say anything like that.

JL Wilkinson, the white owner of the Kansas City Monarchs.  For 30 years Wilkie traveled with his players, shared their hardships, and mortgaged his home to meet his payroll the first of every month.  Just as the end of World War II brought promise of an economic boom, Rickey stepped in and shattered that prospect by plucking Robinson from the Monarchs.

Wilkinson’s partner urged him to sue, but Wilkie refused.  “I won't stand in the way of a man who has a chance to better himself,” he said quietly.            

In all, Wilkinson lost some 30 men to the white majors – Robinson, Paige, Banks, Howard, Hank Thompson, and others.  He got almost nothing for them.  He would die, blind and infirm, in a nursing home at the age of 90, greatly mourned by all his old players.

Bowie Kuhn.  In 1969 at the height of the civil rights turmoil that was tearing the nation apart,  the head of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, and I called on the commissioner to ask that the Hall of Fame open its doors to Satchel Paige and  other greats of the Negro Leagues.  Kuhn sent an attorney to meet us.  The attorney listened to us, then retired for consultations, after which he informed us that the Hall is a private organization and therefore not subject to the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution.  Thus, he said, Kuhn declined to support our plea.

It was therefore left to someone else to speak for the conscience of the game.

Ted Williams.  Foul-mouthed womanizer he may have been, but Ted had the humanity to say what nobody else in baseball would:  It was time to open the doors of Cooperstown to the Negro Leaguers.  “I'm proud of that,” he boomed – Ted didn't say things, he boomed them.  “As I look back on my career,” he told a lunch in his honor at Howard university in 1970, “I often wonder what I would have done if I couldn't play baseball.  A chill goes down my back when I think I could have been denied all this if I'd been black.”

So the history of baseball integration was not a simple moralistic tale of two heroic, saintly men.  It was a tale of many men, of greed and rapacity, courage and timidity, leavened by flashes of magnanimity. 

Yet the miracle of integration did take place.  If one seeks a divine plan, it

may be that out of the all-too-human failings of sinners and hypocrites, the miracle was brought forth.  Rickey probably would not have freed the slaves if he had had to pay a fair price for them.  But, whatever his true motivation was, he was the instrument by which the miracle was accomplished.

 “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant;

Success in circuit lies.

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.


“As lightening to the child is eased

With explanation kind,

The truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind.”

                                                                                    Emily Dickinson



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