My series on the Top Five All-Time Cardinal Executives continues. Occupying the number two spot is a man who made changes in baseball so important that they continue to have an impact on the game today. His name? Wesley Branch Rickey. Rickey is best remembered as the man who signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which permanently integrated The Game. However, no offense to Jackie Robinson and what he brought to The Game (which is a lot), the main focus of this article will be on Rickey’s tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Branch Rickey was born in Portsmouth, Ohio on December 20, 1881. He graduated from Valley High School in Lucasville Ohio in 1899 and received his Bachelor of Arts from Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio where he was a catcher on the Varsity Baseball team. His professional baseball career began in 1903 when he signed with the Terre Haute Hottentots of the Class B Central league. At the same, time, he was embarking on a professional football career in the Ohio League (a precursor to the NFL). Rickey made his major league debut with the St. Louis Browns in 1905. Two years later while with the New York Highlanders (now known as the Yankees), he set a rather dubious record when, as a catcher, he allowed 13 runners to steal on him. His playing career ended with a couple of token appearances for the St. Louis Browns in 1914.
Branch took his first front office job with the Browns in 1913 and became their field manager for the final 12 games of the 1913 and he remained in the position until the end of the 1915 season. During his time with the Browns, he instituted such innovations as sliding pits and strategy meetings he liked to call “skull sessions”. Meanwhile, the Browns’ crosstown rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, had been sold to a new ownership group headed by transplanted New Yorker Sam Breadon.
Breadon made his money and his reputation as a Pierce-Arrow automobile dealer in the St. Louis area, becoming a self-made millionaire in the process. Breadon’s initial investment in the Cardinals was $2000.
Branch Rickey became a Major in the Chemical Corps of the US Army during the waning months of World War I. Serving in France, he commanded a unit that included Captains Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. In 1919, he was installed as the Cardinals’ President and immediately made himself manager to, as he put it, “save himself a salary”. Things got off to a slow start, but in 1921, the Cards started to hit their stride, posting winning records for the next three consecutive years. In 1922, the team began displaying the now familiar “Birds on the Bat” logo with the letter “C” in the word Cardinals hooked over the bat. The design was inspired by a design he saw at a Presbyterian church in Ferguson, Missouri that was arranged by a woman named Allie May Schmidt. The design we have come to know and love today was created by Rickey and Allie May’s father.
On May 31, 1925, Breadon dismissed Rickey as manager, but also installed himself as club President. He would move Rickey into position of business manager (now known as General Manager). Rickey’s replacement on the field would be the team’s star player Second Baseman Rogers “The Rajah” Hornsby. Rickey was initially resentful of the move as he told Breadon, “You can’t do this to me, Sam. You’re ruining me!” Breadon’s response was, “No! I am doing you the greatest favor one man can do for another.”
Rickey began to realize that his boss was right. In the interim, he had begun to invest in a few minor league teams, which he used to develop talent that supplemented the Cardinals’ major league roster. Rickey was placing what was termed in the 1920’s and 1930’s as “A dollar sign on the muscle”. This was the beginning of the modern Farm System. With their first World Championship in 1926, the Cardinals, fueled by Branch Rickey’s innovative player development system, began a run of success that was bettered only by the New York Yankees. From 1926-1946, the Cardinals won nine National League pennants (1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946) and six World Championships (1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946). The last three pennants and the last two World Championships were won with some of the players that had been developed during Branch Rickey’s farm system before his departure in 1942 to become General Manager of the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. Some of the players developed by Branch Rickey’s Farm System included Hall of Famers, Joe Medwick, Dizzy Dean, John Mize, Enos Slaughter, and Stan “The Man” Musial. Plus other Cardinal stars like Pepper Martin, Mort and Walker Cooper, Dizzy Dean’s brother Paul and Marty Marion. Of Dizzy, Branch Rickey once said:
I graduated in the top ten percent of my law school class. I am a Doctor of Juris Prudence. I have an honorary Doctor of Laws. I like to think that I am an intelligent man, so, would somebody please tell me why I spent four mortal hours today conversing with a person named Dizzy Dean?
Over time, Branch Rickey’s Farm System became so successful that every one of the fifteen (at that time) other existing Major League teams copied it. After the 1942 Season, Rickey left the Cardinals to become General manager of the Dodgers after Larry MacPhail accepted a commission as an officer in the United States Army in World War II. While with the Dodgers, Rickey continued to be an innovator, he opened the first full-time Spring Training facility in Vero Beach, Florida. He introduced pitching machines, batting cages and batting helmets. He also pioneered the use of statistical analysis, which we know today as Sabermetrics. It was while he was with the Dodgers that Branch Rickey pulled off his greatest achievement and was signing Jackie Robinson to contract in October of 1945. After spending the 1946 Season with the Dodgers top farm team in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Robinson became the first African American player to play Major League Baseball in the Twentieth Century.
Branch Rickey left the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 after he and new partner Walter O’Malley argued over the specifics of a beer sponsorship. However, Rickey and O’Malley could not stand one another and had been at odds for a long time. Rickey moved on to become Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates who were one of the worst teams in the National League. In 1953, Rickey was involved in a salary dispute with star player Ralph Kiner. Rickey told Kiner, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” On June 4, 1953, Kiner was sent packing to the Chicago Cubs. At the end of the 1953 Season, guess what?? The Pirates…..finished last! Poor health forced Rickey to retire in 1955. However, Rickey’s influence was felt five years later when the Pirates won the 1960 World Series in Seven Games over the Yankees. Core members of that team included Vern law, Elroy Face, future Cardinal Dick Groat (a former All-American basketball player at Duke University), Hall of Famer and 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazeroski and Baseball first Latino superstar…..Roberto Clemente.
Branch Rickey had always been an advocate of expansion of Major League Baseball. On July 27, 1959, the formation of the Continental League of Professional Baseball Clubs was announced and three weeks later, Branch Rickey was named as its President. The new league was scheduled to begin play in April of 1961. However, the Continental League formally disbanded on August 2, 1960 without ever taking the field. In 1961, the American League added the Los Angeles Angels and a second Washington Senators franchise (to replace the original franchise that had moved to Minneapolis and St. Paul to become the Minnesota Twins). The National League followed suit a year later, adding the Houston Colt 45’s (now the Astros) and the New York Mets. Branch Rickey was supposed to become the Mets’ first-ever General Manger, but talks broke off in May of 1961 and never resumed. On October 29, 1962, Branch Rickey returned to the Cardinals and became a player development consultant and a special advisor to owner August A. (“Gussie”) Busch II. He remained in that role until the end of his life. His second tenure with the Cards was marked by his desire to get Stan Musial to retire (which Stan would after the 1963 Season) and his being cast as a key figure in the firing of General Manager Bing Devine (who began his baseball front office career as a Rickey protegee in 1939). On November 13, 1965, as he was making a speech at the University of Missouri in Columbia, marking his election to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Branch Rickey collapsed and fell into a coma. After being hospitalized for 26 days, he died on December 9, 1965 at the age of 83.