It was a horrifying thought, a fear so great that Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella talked about it only in hushed tones.
“We were so afraid, especially Jackie, that one day somebody would assassinate Branch Rickey,” whispers Newcombe, as if these were those early days of integration in baseball.
“Jackie loved that man, but we thought some fool was going to do it. . . . We never wanted to talk about it because we figured if it ever gets in the paper, it gives people ideas, but it was on our mind constantly.
“We thought, ‘Suppose somebody shoots Branch Rickey. What happens then? What does the new owner of the Dodgers do? Is the whole idea of integration scrapped?’
“Branch Rickey was a brave man, but if somebody had shot him back then, no telling where we’d be today.
“I’m not talking about just baseball, man, I’m talking about society.”
The fears of those three black Brooklyn Dodgers apparently were grounded in fact. According to his grandson, Rickey received hundreds, perhaps even thousands of death threats after integrating baseball by signing Robinson.
Rickey, who ran the Dodgers in the late ‘40s, was blamed for ruining the game, for starting the civil rights movement, for corrupting society.
Branch Rickey III remembers the hate mail his grandfather received.
Rickey, however, kept quiet about it, not wanting to draw attention to the death threats. He also kept quiet about his historic achievement.
“Never once did I hear him say, ‘I broke the color barrier,’ ” his grandson said. “Never once did I hear him say he signed Jackie Robinson. He never spoke about his role in it.
“His philosophy was that if you do something morally right, it is an obligation of yours.
“In terms of common decency, you don’t go around looking for credit when you do it and extol it.”
Instead, Rickey passed on a moral dictum that hung in his Brooklyn Dodger office. Today, it hangs in his grandson’s office in Cincinnati:
He that will not reason is a bigot.
He that cannot reason is a fool.
He that dares not reason is a slave.
Wesley Branch Rickey did not need Jackie Robinson to make him famous.
He did not need the pain and heartache of being a crusader, of trying to change society’s thinking in race relations.
He did not need the scorn, contempt and ridicule he got from his peers.
“When my grandfather got to the age of 62, he’d accomplished everything in baseball,” Rickey III said. “He had played. He had managed. He’d had World Series teams. He was credited for being baseball’s innovator. He was recognized for many areas.
“My grandfather risked everything, risked his reputation, to take this step.”
Rickey was a mediocre player, batting .239 in four seasons with the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders, but he was considered a genius once he stepped into the front office. His teams, the Cardinals and the Dodgers, won eight pennants and three World Series championships from 1926 to 1949.
Rickey redefined spring training. He bought an old naval base and turned it into Dodgertown. He invented the farm system. He conceived of pitching machines, sliding pits and even the hanging rectangle of string that gives pitchers a strike-zone target that remains in Dodgertown today.
Rickey, a devout Methodist who wore black suits and bow ties, would wander the grounds and watch players practice all day.
“He had this unbelievable presence,” former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi said. “He’s the best baseball man with the greatest baseball mind I’ve ever been around.”
Apparently that was not enough for Rickey.
“I couldn’t face God much longer, knowing that his black creatures are held separate and distinct from his white creatures in the game that has given me all I own,” he once told his grandson.
“We told 3 1/2 million Negro slaves a century ago that they were free. Free for what? Free from what? Free to do what?
“Now here they are, no longer in chains, but often and in many areas with no more sense of real freedom than they had a century ago. The Negro in America was legally, but never morally, free.
“I thought, ‘If the right man with control of himself could be found. . . .’ ”
It was time to integrate baseball, and other owners weren’t willing to go along, Rickey would do it himself.
The first person he confided in was his wife, Jane. She was strongly opposed. She was in favor of integration but pleaded for someone else, someone younger, to take on the challenge.
“Why should you have to be the one to do it?” she asked him. “Haven’t you done enough for baseball? Can’t someone else do something for a change?”
His grandson said, however, that Rickey remained haunted by an incident when he was a 21-year-old coach at Ohio Wesleyan University.
It was April 1904, and the team went to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame. The hotel clerk refused to give a room to the team’s lone black player, a catcher named Charles Thomas.
Rickey was outraged and ordered an extra cot for Thomas in his room. Then he gathered his players for a team meeting.
“I tried to talk, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Tommy,” Rickey told his grandson. “Here was this fine young man, sitting on the edge of his chair, crying. He was crying as though his heart would break. . . .
“He was pulling frantically at his hands, and started muttering, ‘Black skin. Black skin. If I could only make them white.’
“He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction.
“ ‘It’s my skin. It’s my skin, Mr. Rickey. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everyone else.’
“For 50 years, I’ve had recurrent visions of him wiping off his skin.”
Rickey was determined to make a difference, but he believed that nothing was going to change until the death of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
“For 24 years, Judge Landis wouldn’t let a black man play,” Happy Chandler, who succeeded Landis as commissioner, once said. “Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field. He even refused to let them play exhibition games.
“For 24 years, the record will show that my predecessor said, ‘If you’re black, you can’t play.’ Why? Because that’s what the owners wanted him to do.”
Rickey wanted to be prepared for the day that Landis no longer would be commissioner. He instructed his scouts to watch the Negro leagues.
"[Rickey] had a colored club in Brooklyn, the Brown Dodgers, and Rickey had us believing that we were scouting for them,” scout Clyde Sukeforth once said. “He didn’t give anybody any idea that he was looking for a fella that could break the color line.”
Sukeforth and the other scouts determined that at least eight Negro league players could play in the major leagues: catchers Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella, first baseman Buck Leonard, second baseman Marvin William, shortstop Piper Davis, outfielders Cool Papa Bell and Sam Jethroe and, of course, Robinson.
“I had to get the right man off the field,” Rickey said in his memoirs. “I couldn’t come with a man to break down tradition that had centered and concentrated all of the prejudices of a great many people, North and South, until he was good.
“He must justify himself in the principal of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of a sort of ‘holier than thou.’
“I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me at the time, was the wrong man on the field.”
Rickey knew he had to find a man who not only would be good enough to play for the Dodgers, but would become a star. To convince other owners that there were plenty of black players who could make an impact in the major leagues, this player would have to do much more than simply fit nicely into a lineup.
Rickey chose Robinson, a four-sport athlete at UCLA who had spent three years in the Army and was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs.
“I know there were better players than Jackie in the Negro leagues, everyone knows that,” said Joe Black, who had played for the Newark Eagles before becoming a Dodger. “But I don’t know of another player who could have swallowed everything he did and still performed.
“I remember Willie Mays told me he could have done it, but he said there’s no way in the world he could have ever hit .300.”
Says Newcombe: “Mr. Rickey knew what he was doing. I wonder if Branch Rickey picked him too, because he was so dark. I think he wanted to find a dark-skinned black.
“He wanted to make sure everyone in the stands knew that a black man was taking the field.”
Rickey met Robinson on Aug. 18, 1945. They spent nearly three hours in Rickey’s office. Rickey chastised and cajoled, threatened and reassured, and at one point had Robinson read a section on nonresistance from Italian priest Giovanni Papini’s “The Life of Christ.”
“I need more than a great player,” Rickey told Robinson. “I need a man who will accept insults, take abuse, in a word, carry the flag for his race. Now, can you do it? I know you are naturally combative, but for three years--three years--you will have to do it the only way it can be done. Three years. Can you do it?”
Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a player who’s afraid to fight back?”
Rickey said, “I want players with guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson thought about it for three, maybe four minutes and agreed. He was assigned to the Dodgers’ triple-A club in Montreal.
By midsummer of 1946, major league owners were terrified. They knew the Dodgers’ plans of bringing up Robinson in the spring of 1947. So they got together and voted, 15-1, to retain the gentlemen’s agreement banning blacks from the major leagues.
Rickey was furious. He wrote in his memoirs that he went to Versailles, Ky., the vacation home of new Commissioner Chandler and asked for his support.
“I can’t go ahead in the face of that vote,” Rickey said. “I can’t do it unless I’m assured of your support.”
Chandler asked, “Can this man play?”
Rickey replied, “He could make the major leagues today.”
Chandler said, “Then the only reason he’s being kept out is because he’s black. Let’s bring him in and treat him as just another player. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
Rickey took Robinson to camp the next spring and, hoping to show off Robinson’s ability, scheduled seven games between Montreal and the Dodgers. Robinson batted .625 and stole seven bases in the series.
But instead of extolling his virtues, the Dodger players, led by outfielder Dixie Walker, started a petition calling for Rickey to ban Robinson from playing with the Dodgers. Everyone had signed until it reached Pee Wee Reese.
“I was told that a Negro had signed to play for Brooklyn, although I’d have to say that the word that was used was not ‘Negro,’ ” Reese said. “Like most Americans who were white, I didn’t know what a black athlete was like.
“I began to wonder what the people in Louisville [where he grew up] would think about me playing with him. Then I thought, the hell with anyone who didn’t like it. He deserved a chance, just like everybody else.”
The Dodgers announced on April 10, 1947, in the sixth inning of a Montreal-Brooklyn exhibition game, that Robinson’s contract was being purchased. Five days later, Robinson broke the color barrier.
“Looking back,” says Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, “I can see how the conviction of Jackie and Mr. Rickey to bring a black into baseball was fortified by the fact that they were alike in so many ways.
“There was no doubt about Rickey’s business objectives, but equally clear to us was his intense commitment to making integration work, which he tended to underplay in public.
“He and Jack were unequal in power and influence to be sure, but they were always dependent in this social experiment.
“Neither could succeed without the other.”
But Rickey didn’t stop with Robinson. He signed Campanella in 1948. Newcombe arrived in 1959. Joe Black came along in 1952. Second baseman Jim Gilliam in 1953.
“Black folks will forever be indebted to Branch Rickey,” said Buck O’Neil, former player and manager in the Negro leagues. “The civil rights movement started the day Mr. Rickey signed Jackie to that contract.”
Said Hal McRae, former Kansas City manager and now Philadelphia Phillie hitting coach, who grew up in Avon Park, Fla.: “I think every black family in America became Dodger fans. We’d sit around and listen to their games on the radio. We loved the Dodgers. I think every black family did.”
And the Dodgers, once symbolic of baseball futility, never again were the same. They won the pennant in 1947, and Robinson was honored as the National League’s rookie of the year. They went on to win six pennants in 10 years, and four World Series championships by 1965.
Certainly, there were financial benefits. Robinson was a huge drawing card, and fans flooded the gates.
But if Rickey had been motivated simply by money, he could have devoted all of his energies to making a success of the Brown Dodgers, the team he created in 1945 to play in the new black United States League. That would not only have kept baseball segregated, but would also have kept alive the three Negro leagues as extra sources of income.
And it wasn’t simply about winning.
Rickey realized that for integration to work, all teams in baseball had to sign blacks. That was why he stepped aside when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck pursued Larry Doby.
“It will help the movement,” he said.
And he backed away when the rival New York Giants were trying to sign Monte Irvin.
And one of the proudest days in Rickey’s life occurred in 1958. The Boston Red Sox signed Pumpsie Green to play second base. Every team in baseball had been integrated.
In years to come, public transportation was integrated. So were lunch counters, school systems, juries, public and private universities, businesses, state legislatures.
“I hate to imagine what life would be like without Branch Rickey,” Joe Black said. “The man was a hero. People talk about Rosa Parks, but she was just too tired to move to the back of that bus. She didn’t realize the impact of it and how she would become a symbol for the movement.
“I’ve got a feeling Mr. Rickey knew all along just what would happen.
“I bet he’s upstairs smiling right now because not only did he leave baseball much better off, but the entire world.”