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:
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
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
"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. …