Branch Rickey One Man's Vision Changed Baseball Forever

Article excerpt

It all started with one person, Branch Rickey used to say. When change came to baseball and shook the whole country, Rickey traced it back to one person. Charley Thomas.

Thomas had been the catcher for Ohio Wesleyan in 1904 and the only player denied a room in a South Bend, Ind., hotel. The hotel manager turned him away because of the place's unwritten rule: whites only.

Rickey, Ohio Wesleyan's coach that season, argued. Then he volunteered to let Thomas sleep on a cot in his room. The hotel manager grudgingly agreed, and Thomas went upstairs ahead of his coach. Rickey reached the room to find his team's one black player sitting on the edge of a chair, sobbing. "He was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands, pulling at his hands," Rickey would say later. "He looked at me and he 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.' " Thomas would use those hands to become a successful dentist, but Rickey never forgot the tears and anguish. Thomas was on Rickey's mind in 1947 when he made history by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. This time, one person would check in and erase the unwritten baseball rule that said whites only. Rickey would remember it pretty much that way in published accounts and dinner-table chats. Of course, Rickey had a great gift for embellishing a story. No matter. It wasn't important to Thomas, a lifelong Rickey supporter who once hinted that the whole tugging-at-the-skin part might have been a little exaggerated. The point is, you couldn't make up a story about what Rickey really did pull off by putting Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers' lineup. Rickey very publicly pointed out how important one person can be, and how, skin notwithstanding, everybody is like everybody else. Fifty years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and 32 years after Rickey died at 83, the former Dodgers president and general manager still ranks as one person who changed baseball and shook a country that needed shaking. "As I look at it, my grandfather put at risk a reputation he spent 50 years developing," said Branch Rickey III, president of the American Association, a top-level minor league. "He was a boy who came from very hum ble beginnings and had reached the top. He had a lot to lose in making this deal, I can tell you from the Rickey side. "He was always dealing with what I would say were either challenging concepts, confrontational situations, noble efforts or something else we don't come across in our ordinary lives very often," said the grandson, who was a toddler when Robinson made his debut. "He carried that with him like a robe wherever he went." Rickey reshaped baseball before he integrated it, having been credited with establishing the farm-team concept for major-league clubs when he ran the Cardinals. He was a devout Methodist who refused to go to ballgames on Sundays, and always called the park for the attendance and concession figures. "Mr. Rickey had the greatest baseball mind I've ever come across," said Buzzie Bavasi, his assistant in 1947 and later general manager of the Dodgers, California Angels and San Diego Padres. "Someone said, `Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley had two things in common: They liked good ballplayers and they liked money, and they never let the two of them get together.' " Rickey was known in a lot of ways: Ohio farmboy; conservative Republican; "A mixture of Phineas T. Barnum and Billy Sunday" (Time magazine, 1947); Hall of Famer; "The Deacon" for his piety; "El Cheapo" by Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers; "The Mahatma" by people who heard his oratory and offered a tongue-in-cheek comparison with Mahatma Gandhi. But this Gandhi with a cigar in his gnarled former catcher's hands is best known as the man behind the man who crossed the barrier. That was fine with Rickey. "Integration could have gone forward without Branch Rickey," Branch Rickey III said. …