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Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey

15 April 2013 marked the fifth Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, an event which broke baseball’s racial barrier. In each game that is now played on 15 April, all players wear Jackie Robinson’s iconic #42 (also the title of a new film on Robinson). Thirty years ago, historian and ardent baseball fan Jules Tygiel proposed the first scholarly study of integration in baseball, shepherded by esteemed Oxford editor, Sheldon Meyer. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy was first published in 1983, and its 25th Anniversary was celebrated with a new edition in 2008. Though Dr. Tygiel passed away in 2008, this extract from his Afterword demonstrates our ongoing captivation with the Jackie Robinson story.

One of the more surprising elements of the recent lionization of Jackie Robinson has been the relative diminution of Branch Rickey in the saga. In the early retellings of the story, Rickey, not Robinson, played the dominant role. The flamboyant and publicity-savvy Dodger president, after all, had set the project in motion, bucking not just history but a hostile group of fellow owners. Rickey had scouted the Negro Leagues and Caribbean baseball, discovered and selected Robinson, and meticulously planned the strategies necessary to make his “great experiment” a success. Rickey had also, in many respects, shaped the prevailing master narrative of the path to integration: his dramatic 1945 meeting with Robinson; the restrictions placed on Robinson’s behavior; the suppression of the 1947 player revolt; and the 1949 liberation of Robinson allowing him to strike back at his tormentors. Although commentators constantly debated and questioned Rickey’s true motivations, in many accounts Robinson appeared as a puppet, with Rickey pulling the strings.

The image of a white, paternalistic Rickey masterminding the integration process and in Lincolnesque fashion emancipating black ballplayers fit well with the postwar liberal ethos. The rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 1950s and 1960s, however, called for a Robinson who was less a martyr to a cause and more an active agent of change. I attempted to present the two more as partners in the endeavor, but as the story unfolded, it was Robinson, the dynamic, compelling man on the field who seized center stage, while Rickey, who left the Dodgers after the 1950 season, faded into the background.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. Photo by Bob Sandberg. Published in LOOK, v. 19, no. 4, 1955 Feb. 22, p. 78.United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Current literature reveals a similar trend. While studies of Robinson proliferate, volumes on Rickey, who even without the Robinson story would still be the most significant baseball executive of the twentieth century, have been rare. Murray Polner’s Branch Rickey: A Biography appeared at about the same time as Baseball’s Great Experiment. Not until 2007, when Lee Lowenfish’s authoritative Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman was published, did another Rickey biography appear. Lowenfish reminds us of the strong religious underpinnings for Rickey’s actions. He criticizes those who question Rickey’s motives as guilty of “erroneous simplification,” arguing that “by ridiculing Rickey’s pontificating style, the impatient ideologues have ignored his moral substance and the genuine paternal relationship he built with Robinson the athlete and family man.” But Lowenfish does not substantially revise the standard long-accepted storyline presented in Baseball’s Great Experiment and other works.

Several historians, however, have contributed a handful of additional insights into Rickey’s thinking that alter my original portrayal. John Thorn discovered a cache of photographs of Robinson taken by a Look photographer in 1945. This led John and me to revisit several documents in the Arthur Mann Papers and to conclude that Rickey’s original idea was not to announce the signing of just Robinson in October 1945 but several Negro League players at once. Political pressures forced Rickey to abandon this strategy and focused attention on Robinson alone as the standard-bearer of the campaign. Neil Lanctot has also shattered the longstanding myth that the United States League (USL), a new Negro League that took the field in 1945, was created largely as a smokescreen for Rickey’s integration initiative. Rickey, he shows, played a minimal role in the conception or operations of the USL. In a review of Baseball’s Great Experiment, Ron Story suggested that my analysis of Rickey’s actions had underplayed his lifelong pursuit of cheap labor, as embodied in his creation of the farm system, in analyzing his decision to sign black players. Following this lead, I addressed this aspect of Rickey’s career in a chapter in Past Time: Baseball As History, published in 2000.

If Rickey, however, has inspired relatively little new research, Robinson remains a popular subject. Thanks to several biographical studies, most notably, Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial Jackie Robinson: A Life, we have a more fully developed portrait of Robinson’s upbringing and his often controversial postbaseball experiences as businessman, civil rights leader, and political activist. Family memoirs by his wife, Rachel, and daughter, Sharon, have, along with Rampersad’s book, also offered a deeper perspective into Robinson’s personal life. In the quest for fresh things to say about Robinson’s baseball career, historians and journalists have begun to deconstruct it in minute detail. Thus we now have books focusing on Robinson’s first spring training in Florida in 1946 and his 1947 rookie season. Can studies of his 1949 Most Valuable Player year or his personal role in the 1951 heartbreak (both of which could actually be wonderful reads) be far behind?

Jules Tygiel, a native of Brooklyn, was Professor of History at San Francisco State University and founder of the Pacific Ghost League. He is the author of Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy and The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal During the Roaring Twenties. In this gripping account of one of the most important steps in the history of American desegregation, Jules Tygiel tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s crossing of baseball’s color line. Examining the social and historical context of Robinson’s introduction into white organized baseball, both on and off the field, Tygiel also tells the often neglected stories of other African-American players–such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron–who helped transform our national pastime into an integrated game.

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