The Inspiration That Led Branch Rickey To Break The Color Line In Major League Baseball
In April of this year, 2013, baseball fans and non-baseball fans finally got to see the extraordinary story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson brought to life on the big screen. The movie, simply called "42", is a biopic that follows Jackie Robinson and the hardship and trials the legend went through while becoming the first African American ballplayer to break the color line in Major League Baseball.
Despite Hollywood's inaccuracies and some embellishments which were expected to take place, the movie was exceptional and captured the courage of Jackie Robinson, those team mates who eventually accepted him, and the then General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson and broke the color barrier in baseball forever.
While Rickey in the movie and in real life has stated that there were financial reasons in wanting to break the color line, he was also a deeply religious man and had a strong constitution of what he felt was right and wrong. In the movie 42, Robinson asks Branch Rickey why he was doing this for the second time near the end of movie. Finally, Rickey tells him the story of a ball player named Charles Thomas and how he witnessed the discrimination Thomas endured and regretted not doing enough for him.
It appears that this story is true, and Charles Thomas had a deep impact on Branch Rickey's decision to finally challenge the status quo and change the history of baseball and the United States forever!
Branch Rickey and Charles Thomas
In the early 1900s, Branch Rickey was a player/coach for Ohio Wesleyan University in which he had met an African American student by the name of Charles Thomas. Branch Rickey recruited Thomas for the position of catcher.
In Ebony magazine in 1968, Thomas recalled, “From the very first day I entered Ohio Wesleyan, Branch Rickey took special interest in my welfare,”
Although Thomas reports that he faced little prejudice from classmates and teammates, he did face it regularly from opposing teams and their fans. Like Jackie Robinson would forty something years later, Thomas would face the ugly head of racism on the road playing ball for Ohio Wesleyan.
Branch Rickey would also witness this as well and would often recall one story in various interviews. On the road heading to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame, Charles Thomas was denied a hotel room. Rickey talked to the hotel clerk to see if Thomas could sleep on a cot in his room. The hotel clerk relented and accepted Rickey's proposal.
Later that evening, Rickey saw Thomas break down. Rubbing his hands together, Thomas sobbed: “Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them white.”
Rickey consoled Thomas. “Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up! We’ll lick this one day, but we can’t if you feel sorry for yourself.”
Although there were plenty of other moments in which Charles Thomas would be discriminated against solely for the color of his skin, it was that moment in which Thomas tried to rub away his black skin that would continually haunt Branch Rickey.
“I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas," Rickey told The A.P., The Associated Press.
The story Branch Rickey told was confirmed to Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey's biographer, by Charles Thomas himself. Charles Thomas also recalled a story during a baseball game at Kentucky in 1903, in which the opposing team and fans chanted racial slurs to get Thomas off the field. Branch Rickey stormed across and shouted at the Kentucky dugout, “We won’t play without him!”
Thomas also confirmed to Lee Lowenfish that Branch Rickey always made sure he had a cot in Rickey's room if the Hotel denied him a room.
Charles Thomas would later graduate from Ohio Wesleyan and attend dental school in Columbus. He became a dentist in St. Louis and then eventually in Albuquerque.
In fact, Branch Rickey and Charles Thomas had remained friends until Rickey's death in 1965. Charles Thomas died in 1971 at the age of 90. In his obituary in The Albuquerque Tribune, his friend, Herman Schulman, confirmed this and was quoted in saying, “He and Mr. Rickey were such good friends. Every time that Rickey would come to Albuquerque, he would always get hold of Dr. Thomas and they would have dinner.”
Skepticism About Branch Rickey!
There is quite some skepticism to Rickey's story. Non-believers have questioned why this story was never uttered from Rickey's lips prior to Robinson's signing, or why Branch Rickey waited so long to finally decide to break the color line in Major League Baseball.
Yes, there was monetary reasons. There's no doubt that the Dodgers were in debt by the time Rickey took his position there, and there's little doubt he wanted to corner a supply of cheap talent like he'd done when creating the farm system while he was with the Cardinals. However, perhaps this was the opening he saw in doing something about the injustice he had been haunted by for so many years. Perhaps Branch Rickey felt it was the right time to finally do what he felt was right when he entered the Dodgers organization.
To say that Branch Rickey only broke the color line to tap into an unmined pool of talent is a highly narrow and weak explanation. Most every one of Branch Rickey's colleagues had the same interest of tapping into an unmined talent pool, but none of them ever considered letting blacks into Major League baseball.
In fact, many other team owners were outraged by Rickey's move to sign Robinson. Many also resisted him and were highly against it. Most all believed that blacks did not belong in the Majors. Rickey's motivations had to have some moral backing. He had to believe that blacks could play baseball just as good as whites and did belong in the Majors for him to attempt to do what ultimately ended up doing. If he didn't think this, RIckey would be in the same pool as his colleagues who believed that blacks were not good enough for Major League Baseball.
However, it is apparent that Branch Rickey knew that he could not take the establishment head on at first. Rickey probably knew that he would face the most opposition if he made integration the main issue of breaking the color line, and that route would prove the most at garnishing resistance.
Why else would he have created a new bogus Negro league called the United States League? Even the scouts that were searching for black talent did not know that they were searching for one black talent that would break the color line in baseball. They all thought that they were scouting for the new Negro league.
Branch Rickey's legacy in breaking the color line in Major League Baseball is solid. No one can take that away from him. His motives are a subject of debate, sure, and a lot point to his desire to break the color line more along the lines of monetary self interest to win baseball games.
However, I can only say that Branch Rickey didn't have to do what he did. He could've very well stayed in the safe zone. He didn't have to put himself in a position of criticism, and within the firing cross hairs of other owners, managers, baseball presidents, and players in the National Baseball League, as well as the entire country. He didn't have to go on record against racial prejudice in the newspapers. In fact, during the social climate of his era, his answer for doing so may have been more accepted if he just went with the "I'm just getting cheap Negro talent to win baseball games."
Branch Rickey did take the least accepted road of that era, and he took a stand in the fight against racial injustice in the sport he loved. As convoluted as his motives appeared then and now, it's still an act that went against the grain of the time.
At Branch Rickey's funeral, Bobby Bragan, one of the Southern Dodger players who signed the petition against playing with Robinson and later relented and became a supporter of Robinson, stated that he decided to attend Rickey's funeral because, "Branch Rickey made me a better man."
We can debate about Branch Rickey's motives all we want, but the plain fact is that his actions to integrate baseball and try to make the world a better place will continue to echo in American sports and American history despite the controversy.
Just like Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey's courage deserves to.
Source: New York Times article written by Chris Lamb.
Source: SB Nation article written by Steven Goldman