the thin white line

He was known for the quote, “luck is the residue of opportunity and design,” even though it was most likely a misattribution, but even then, John Milton and Paradise Lost could have served as pretext for much of Branch Rickey’s life. Rickey is a peculiar enigmatic figure who acted like a white liberal but was actually a fervent Republican and a religious Methodist who would not go the ballpark on Sunday. Perhaps the gruff talk and something in the cigar chomping holds the clue. But was deciding to integrate baseball an act of idealism, one imbued with Christian justice or more an act of astute business sense? We will never know exactly, though in the mind of some the answer is clear:

( Ken Burns interview of Buck O’Neill): Why do you think Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers, decided to integrate the game?…

---“Robinson caused the gravest of all fears: what if this black man makes it and then there is another one after him and soon a third and fourth and more, then what will happen to our way of life, this national pastime, if these players take everything and the whites we applauded turned out not to be so great and wound up working in Southern gas stations?” --- Read More: image:

…Let me tell you something. I saw baseball after the Black Sox Scandal, when everybody… kind of go off the baseball, see? And here comes Babe Ruth hitting the home runs and that brought it back, see? Then we went into another little recession in baseball, and here comes the lkigths and that brought it back. See? Now we’re going to the war and all the good ballplayers are gone, so that kind of brought it down a little. Now here comes Jackie Robinson, see. This is money. Branch Rickey was a top businessman. He had seen us play before 50,000 in Comiskey Park, you understand? We had played in Yankee Stadium, with 40,000 people. So he knew — here’s a new source of revenue. He got people that had never seen a major league baseball game coming to baseball to see Jackie…. Read More:

---The brilliance of Breslin’s book is that he writes about an event at the center of American sports history and yet makes his case with beguiling asides -- brush-back pitches, you might say -- that startle the reader with their perspicacity. Consider the notion that the farm system Rickey conceived was “modeled somewhat after the Southern system of slavery,” or the insight that Rickey possessed “a Midwestern Christian religious fervor as strong as a wheat crop, and a political faith in anything Republican.” --- Read More:

Rickey was a Billy Beane and Moneyball type way before. He developed statistical analysis and hired the first baseball statistician. He developed the idea of farm system-apparently based on the southern plantation idea- and a host of innovations. As Jimmy Breslin said, “baseball used to be a sport for hillbillies with good eyesight.” Rickey brought it into a palatable format for middle class television age.

But is luck the residue of design? Some people are lucky. Some are not. Even though luck may appear to appear on its own volition from time to time. But a Rickey understood, luck is most often a consequence, a result, of putting much mental observational evidence into a coherent package, then all of the sudden, bang. It works. There is always luck, but you earn it was well. Its good to be lucky but often to be lucky you have to be good. We have some influence over luck. Breaking the color line was something Rickey worked out over a long time; he knew the great Negro League stars like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige could play. And the Robinson project, “to find the right one” began four years before Robinson stepped on the field.

Biases were ugly, resistance was strong, and, in Breslin’s hands, Rickey was a bull-headed businessman blessed with a “fierce belief that it is the deepest sin against God to hold color against a person.” A teetotaling Methodist from southern Ohio, Rickey stayed out of the ballpark on Sunday to honor a religious vow he made to his mother. He played briefly in the majors but found much greater success as a coach, scout and team executive. Before achieving his historic claim to fame, he spent a quarter-century (1917-42) with the St. Louis Cardinals, developing teams that won six National League pennants and four World Series. He also created the farm system, “which gathered players of promise and grew them, like crops,” Breslin writes. In St. Louis, he tried to integrate ballpark seating so blacks could get out of the 100-degree heat of the bleachers and join whites in the shaded grandstands. Cardinals’ owner Sam Breadon “knew Rickey was right,” Breslin explains, “but not as right as the gasoline that people in that near-Southern city would splash over the wooden stands in order to burn them to the ground.” …

…As the train rumbled along the tracks on a 12-day road trip in that first season, several wary white players watched from a distance while the stars Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider dined with Robinson, everybody laughing and joshing. Reserve catcher Bobby Bragan remembered the impact of that moment. “We were outsiders. . . . We were out of it,” said the Texan. “It did not last forever, I’ll tell you that.” On a later road trip, Bragan got himself a seat at the table with Robinson. “I don’t care where you’re from . . . he was the best company.” Read More:

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