- Played his first two seasons at Ohio Wesleyan before signing a professional contract and serving as coach and athletics director before graduating in 1904
- His college experience influenced his role in promoting Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier years later as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers
- As coach of the 1903 Ohio Wesleyan team, one of his players was Charles Thomas, a black student (undoubtedly one of the first blacks in college baseball) from Zanesville, Ohio. During that season, Thomas was denied lodging at a hotel in South Bend, Ind. Rickey was able to convince the hotel manager to allow Thomas to stay in his room as an unregistered guest, but the event — and the sight of Thomas sitting on the bed weeping — were burned into his memory and proved to be his inspiration in Brooklyn
- Rickey’s professional career saw him lead St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and 1930s, the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s
- Accomplishments include the development of the farm system, the introduction of batting helmets, and of course, the historic signing of Jackie Robinson
- Played in four Major League seasons
- Was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967 as a Pioneer and Executive
Did you know:
The following article was written by Lee Lowenfish for Rickey’s induction into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. Lowenfish is the author of the award-winning biography, “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman.” He also collaborated with the University of Southern California alumnus Tom Seaver on “The Art of Pitching.”
Branch Rickey is best known for the invention of the farm system after World War I and the racial integration of baseball after World War II with the signing of Jackie Robinson. Yet before his name became a household word for these great achievements, Rickey coached baseball at three colleges, Ohio Wesleyan, Allegheny and University of Michigan.
He was a good enough left-handed-hitting catcher to have played in the major leagues for parts of three seasons from 1905-07, but he never was much of a hitter, finishing with a career .239 average in 119 games.
It was in college coaching that his genius for organization, evaluation and inspiration first came to the fore. He loved the college game because he believed once you found athletes who could run and throw and hit, brains could win games as well as brawn.
Rickey began his coaching career in 1903 while still an undergraduate at his beloved alma mater Ohio Wesleyan. He lost his eligibility because needing the money for his education, he accepted pay for playing summer semi-pro baseball. Officials at the college were so impressed with his intelligence and passion for the game that they named the 21-year-old head baseball coach. In 1904 Ohio Wesleyan enjoyed its greatest baseball season, going 14-5, establishing a record for wins that would last almost a century.
Rickey’s tenure as coach also would be notable for an incident off the field. During a road trip to play Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., catcher Charles “Tommy” Thomas, the team’s only African-American, was told by a hotel desk clerk that he could not register with the rest of the team because of his color.
The principled, passionate Branch Rickey demanded to see the hotel manager and told him that if Thomas were denied accommodations, the whole squad would move to a local YMCA. After a heated discussion, the hotel reluctantly agreed to put a cot for Thomas in Rickey’s room.
Rickey had a special feeling for Thomas, a husky all-around athlete that the coach had converted from first base to catcher when Rickey lost his eligibility. The black player was grateful for his coach’s help but once in Rickey’s hotel room he broke down sobbing, pawing at his skin as if to wipe away the stain of its color.
“I never felt so helpless in my life,” Rickey remembered years later when he signed Jackie Robinson, thus breaking baseball’s infamous color line. Thomas, who had become a successful dentist in Albuquerque, N.M., and had remained in touch with his coach, confirmed the story once Robinson became a rousing success in 1947 leading the Brooklyn Dodgers into the World Series and earning honors as Major League Rookie of the Year.
After recovering from tuberculosis at the Saranac Lake, N.Y., sanitarium Rickey entered the University of Michigan law school in the fall of 1909 and yet still found time to begin coaching the baseball team in 1910. (Before the term “multi-tasking” was invented, Branch Rickey was a multi-tasker!) In four seasons, Branch Rickey compiled a very impressive 68-32-4 record.
His tenure was noteworthy for another player conversion. During indoor preseason practice in 1912, a shy freshman engineering student and southpaw pitcher named George Sisler asked Rickey if he could try out for the varsity. The rules of the day forbade freshman eligibility but Rickey allowed the young man, a fellow Ohioan, to pitch batting practice.
“He was a Major League pitcher right there!” Rickey remembered in awe years later in The American Diamond, his only book published shortly before his death in 1965.
As a hitter, Sisler also was awe-inspiring and in 1913, the only season Rickey would coach him in college. He hit .449 as the Wolverines sent Rickey off to his first major executive job with the St. Louis Browns with a sparkling 22-4-1 record.
Two years later and upon graduation, Sisler rejoined his mentor on the Browns and he was permanently converted from pitcher to everyday first baseman.
If he hadn’t been plagued by a serious eye condition, Sisler might have totally rewritten the record book. As it was, he finished his career with a .340 average, hit over .400 in two seasons, amassed 2,812 hits and was elected to Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame in 1939.
Sisler and Rickey established a lifelong friendship. The Hall of Fame first baseman scouted for Rickey in Brooklyn and in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and was instrumental in teaching Jackie Robinson the finer points of first base, the position the great all-around athlete played in his epochal 1947 rookie season.
Sisler was the most accomplished but by no means the only college player that Rickey brought to the majors. Rickey’s Michigan shortstop John “Doc” Lavan, a graduate of the medical school, played for both the Browns and one of Rickey’s early St. Louis Cardinals teams.
On Rickey’s first Cardinals World Series champion in 1926 the starting center fielder was Taylor Douthit (pronounced Doubt-it), a product of the University of California’s school of agriculture. He was signed by Charles C. Chapman, a former semi-pro player in the United States and Japan and a Latin American history professor at Cal-Berkeley. Chapman had been hired as a scout after he wrote Rickey that there was untapped talent on the West Coast that too many baseball organizations had ignored.
As so often in his life as a visionary trail-blazing executive, Rickey warmed to the passion and enthusiasm of the younger Chapman who urged prospects to accept the low pay in the minor leagues “for the immense advantage to be obtained in human experience and happy memories.”
As Branch Rickey this week enters the shrine of college baseball immortals, let us remember his idealism and youthful spirit. After all, he was the man who when asked as he was trying to lead a third major league, the Continental League, at the age of 77, what was his greatest thrill in baseball replied, “It hasn’t happened yet.”