On Saturday, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. But there should be another celebration in the MLB: Branch Rickey Day.
It was Rickey who emancipated Major League Baseball. Children should study him the way they used to study Lincoln before critical race theory showed up.
The particular man in question, Jackie Robinson, happened to be black. What mattered to Rickey—who happened to be white—was that Robinson was a superlative baseball player. So good, showing so much potential, that Rickey risked his career in baseball to recruit Robinson, who became the first black man to play in the Big Leagues, which the two men thus opened up to every man who could play the game at that level.
When Rickey became president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942, all of the social legal pressure was against allowing men like Robinson to play major league baseball, no matter how well they played it. Robinson’s talent was languishing in the segregated leagues, where he was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey thought it absurd that anyone who had the talent Robinson obviously had should be kept out of what was, at the time, touted as the league for the best of the best.
He saw that Major League Baseball was in fact no such thing if it refused to let men like Robinson play.
Just as it would have made a mockery of boxing if Joe Louis hadn’t been allowed to box Max Schmeling in 1936 and again in 1938. The first time, Schmeling won an upset victory over Louis by carefully studying Louis’ moves prior to the fight and noticing a habit he had of dropping his left hand after a jab—reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky character switching from left to right to beat Mr. T’s Clubber Lang character in “Rocky III.” The Brown Bomber—as Louis was affectionately known to his fans—came back (like Rocky) and beat Schmeling in the ’38 rematch.
The two men became friends after the fight and remained so for the rest of their lives, with Schmeling serving as one of his pallbearers when Louis died in 1981.
Like Rickey and Robinson, Louis and Schmeling saw each other as equals and respected one another as men. That one was black and the other white was as relevant to them as the color of good spaghetti sauce is to a blind man.
But that was not an easy thing for Branch Rickey to act on in the early ’40s, when there seemed to be very little payoff in letting the best man play—and much to be gained by preventing him from playing.
It was the actual Jim Crow era, when segregation was both practiced and (in many places) the law. The content of a man’s character didn’t matter as much as the color of his skin—and the same was true of his ability. Major League Baseball was all-white because only whites were allowed to play. Men who weren’t couldn’t even try out. It was as silly as refusing to let the best doctor operate because he wasn’t the right color—but that’s the way it was.
And there was enormous pressure to keep it that way.
Some white MLB executives feared baseball fans would not be fans of baseball players who weren’t white, no matter how well they played. This included the management of the Boston Red Sox, which gave Robinson a staged “try out” where he had no chance of being inducted but was subjected to abuse on account of his race.
Rickey faced the same, as recounted in the excellent Ken Burns PBS documentary, “Baseball.” In it, legendary sports announcer Red Barber tells of Rickey’s determination to break down the color barrier, out of idealism and business sense—because it made no sense to not promote the best.
He wanted a meritocracy based on skills, not skin.
And so he risked everything—not just his career in baseball, as a prominent executive—by recruiting Robinson and integrating him into MLB, first via the Montreal Royals, the Dodger’s “international” farm team—and from there to first base with the Dodgers, proper—where he became Rookie of the Year in 1947 and went on to become an All Star player for six consecutive seasons (1949-1954), won the National League’s MVP Award in 1949, played in six World Series—and became a national icon.
And something more. A legend.
Every year on April 15th, MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. Where every player, black, white, Latin, or Asian wear’s Robinson’s number 42 to commemorate the day Jackie made his major league debut.
Robinson set the example that another man would talk about years after his baseball career was over. That man was Martin Luther King, Jr., who rejected the idea that a man ought to be judged by his looks rather than who is—and what he does.
And it was another man who agreed with them both, who happened to be a white man. A man who didn’t patronize any man but saw, respected—and promoted—talent when he saw it.
Even if it might have cost him everything, professionally and personally.
And that makes him a major-leaguer, too.