Rickey's uproarious, revealing scouting reports

April 12th, 2018
Branch Rickey was a baseball pioneer. (AP)/AP

"Definite prospect. … If this fellow had been in the Confederate Army on July 3, 1863, he would have led Pickett's Charge up Cemetery Hill -- 40 yards in front of anybody, completely unarmed, but carrying the flag, and he would not have heeded the general's order to retreat." -- Branch Rickey's scouting report of a pitcher named Ken Barbao, 1952
As the years have gone by, Rickey has mostly been reduced to the man who signed Jackie Robinson and told him, "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." Oh, it's an extraordinary thing signing Robinson, the most extraordinary thing Rickey (or any other baseball executive) ever did.
But that one towering achievement makes it easy to overlook the simple truth that if Rickey had never signed Jackie Robinson, he would still be one of the five most influential people in baseball history. Rickey basically invented the Minor Leagues and Spring Training as we know them. He was the first to have batters hit off tees, and to have pitchers throw through wire strike zones. Rickey more or less started the modern baseball search for data and advanced analytics.
People have often gone on absurd goose chases to find a single person who invented baseball -- the twin mythologies of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright have filled countless baseball history books.
But Major League Baseball in 2018 is essentially pulled from the mind of Rickey.
"His work on the hill has an unusual amount of perfection. Intelligent face and manner, shows good breeding." -- Rickey's report of future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, 1954
He was named Wesley Branch Rickey -- Wesley after the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and Branch after Jesus' proclamation in John 15:5: "I am the vine, ye are the branches."
From this, you can tell that Rickey grew up in a deeply religious home in Southern Ohio; he maintained those Methodist roots all his life. Rickey used to say, "I'm here to run the Brooklyn Dodgers and serve the God to whom they pray."
With Rickey, though, such piety was always a bit more complicated than first glance. He promised his mother that he would never play baseball on a Sunday, and so even as a general manager, he refused to come to the ballpark on that day. But, Dodgers employees cracked, he still called in to find out the attendance.
This was Rickey. Even now, people disagree about exactly why he signed Robinson. Rickey was unquestionably a man who believed in equal rights. He was also a man who saw a huge untapped market for both great baseball players and ticket buyers.

With Rickey, there were always multiple things at play. He did not intend to go into baseball. Rickey was a backup catcher in the Major Leagues briefly. Then, he was also a teacher. Then, he tried the law. Rickey's first and only client, a kidnapper in Boise, Idaho, spat at his feet. With that, he moved to St. Louis and began a 50-year affair with the sport that he loved.
Oh did Rickey love baseball. He loved playing it, teaching it, coaching it, analyzing it and scouting it. Rickey spent most of his waking hours thinking about baseball. He developed theories, a million theories. He loved talking about the game, loved forming baseball truisms and loved every single thing about it.
"Man may penetrate the outer reaches of the universe," Rickey would say. "He may solve the very secret of eternity itself. But for me, the ultimate human experience is to witness the flawless execution of the hit and run."
To witness that overwhelming love of baseball … well, we have all been given a great gift. Not long ago, the Library of Congress decided to digitize the Branch Rickey Papers -- and, specifically, some 1,750 scouting reports that Rickey wrote. Some of the reports are of extraordinary and famous baseball players -- Roberto Clemente, Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, etc.
Most are not; most are reports on Minor League pitchers like Barbao, the man on top who apparently would have led Pickett's Charge, or a pitiable soul like Edward Cypher, who drew this savage report from the Mahatma, as Rickey was called:
"Cannot catch, cannot throw. If he makes a high-school team, they will never get into the championship -- that's a cinch. He would have to hit .400 to make any club, and it is an even bet he cannot hit .100."
After you read a few hundred of these reports, you realize something: You're really reading a scouting report of Rickey himself. You find what was important to him, what did not matter much, what he believed in and, yes, just how deeply he enjoyed baseball.
"'Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.' And great players whom management would like to see in Pittsburgh are to be found fault with if they are not as good as they should be. … With the score nothing to nothing, and a runner in scoring distance, he fails to take a chance. On a short fly ball that he could have caught, I am sure, if he had made a dive, he failed to do so. He may not have championship adventure in his soul." -- Rickey's report of outfielder Frank Thomas, 1951
Thomas grew to despise Rickey. The two men had the most intense salary wars; Rickey, without fail, refused to give in, and Thomas, without fail, would call Rickey "El Cheapo." Well, it was true, Rickey was savagely cheap, except when it came to his own salary.

But there was something that Rickey saw in his very first scouting report of Thomas that stuck with him, something he felt deeply: He saw Thomas' talent. "The boy can do everything," he wrote. But Rickey believed there are two groups: there are players, and then there are championship players.
Rickey called the first batch "anesthetics" -- the origin of the word is in dispute, but my favorite theory is that Rickey called them that because when you had a team of anesthetics, you would wake up in September realizing you were out of the race.
What Rickey wanted was a team of players who played with force and verve. He loathed players who did not.
"Unadventurous on the basepaths" was a constant Rickey complaint.
"Shows fear" was another.
"Lacks confidence" was a Rickey black mark.
"Afraid" was the blackest mark.
Rickey's most famous scouting report might be one of Eddie Stanky, a little terror of a ballplayer who Rickey brought to Brooklyn in the 1940s: "He cannot hit, he cannot throw and he cannot outrun his grandmother. But if there is a way to beat the other team, he will find it."
That's what Rickey wanted to see when he scouted. He wanted to know every single thing about a player. Rickey often wrote about the player's parents (Of Leon Beran: "His father is a Kansas wheat farmer"). He wondered about players' social lives (Robert Anderton: "I would be surprised if he is not ignorant of vice, and if so, it is wonderful"). Rickey put a lot of stock in what a player looked like -- as you see above, he liked that Drysdale had an intelligent face.
Mostly, though, Rickey wanted to see fire. And so, when he saw the young Thomas not dive for that ball, it left an impression on him. Thomas became a three-time All-Star, a good player, but Rickey always thought Thomas was more anesthetic than champion.
"This boy is from Mingo Junction, Ohio. He is 6 1/2-foot tall, right-hander, weighs 150 pounds. A gentleman. He is kindly, courteous, straightforward, clean in manner, and you would be proud to have him for your grandson -- intelligent, too." -- Rickey's report of pitcher James Brettell, 1953
Rickey brought this sort of enthusiasm to all of his reports. Even the most minor of prospects drew his full attention. Brettell was, at best, a limited prospect. He pitched two games for Pittsburgh's Class D team in Clinton, Iowa.
But Rickey didn't care. He wanted to know Brettell. And as he came to know him, Rickey decided that Brettell was a high-character person. As it turns out, he was right. Brettell left baseball and served in the Navy for nine years (he threw back-to-back no-hitters as part of the Navy baseball team).
Brettell returned to study at numerous seminaries and became a pastor. He has written numerous books such as "Christianity in Spiritual Perspective: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired?"
See, Rickey was never just scouting baseball.
"Bill Bell is a scaredy-cat, knows nothing about pitching, and knows he knows nothing. He has no confidence in himself and is highly receptive to advice. He has big ears. … Great fastball, great straight-drop curve, a marvelous change of speed on his fastball, and he will have a great change-of-pace curveball. He is a Major Leaguer if ever one was born." -- Rickey's report of pitcher Bill Bell, 1951
Rickey was, as mentioned, a man of contradictions. This comes through in many of his scouting reports -- one minute he will tear someone apart ("Bill Bell is a scaredy-cat") and the next, he is effusive in his praise ("He is a Major Leaguer if ever one was born"). This can be somewhat dizzying.
Incidentally, Bell ended up in the Major Leagues, though he only pitched in five games. He had some control problems. In his first and only big league start, he walked eight. Maybe it was the big ears.
How about this scouting report for Paul Smith, who played three years in the big leagues: "Wears a 6 1/2 hat. Reminds me of an egg with a piece of chewing gum on the little end. No neck -- no size."
And then: "Hits to all fields. Treacherous tricky hitter."
Bell and Smith were among the lucky ones. In other reports, Rickey did not balance out his negativity. Look out below:
Leonard Branch: "I do not know what I said in my previous report about Branch's fastball, but my judgment today is that he doesn't have one."
Duane Powell: "He mumbles when he talks. He has to repeat everything to know what he said."
Pedro Ballester: "He is no good in any way and should have his unconditional release."
Bob Garber: "At this time, if Bob Garber is a Major League pitcher, I am not only a Swiss watchmaker, but I am the best a Swissman has ever put out."
Pete Gongola: "He either can't throw, or he has a sore arm. He is not much of a hitter. The biggest trouble about him is that he can't catch."
"Worked him only to observe his so-called new pitch -- a forkball. He has it. It is not at all in effect a knuckler. It simply doesn't knuckle, but it is a very effective change-of-pace pitch. It spins exactly in direction and rapidity, the same one after another, but he has fine control of it. He can use it as a change of pace. It has indeed marked his improvement. We will see about it." -- Rickey's report of Roy Face, 1955
One of the things you look for when you look at old reports: How often was the scout right -- and, more to the point, how often was he comically, disastrously wrong? It's those disastrous scouting reports that fascinate.
"Needs a lot of help with the bat," one scout wrote about Wade Boggs, for instance. What's striking about Rickey's reports are he rarely seemed to miss.
Take the above report on Face -- he was a 27-year-old fringe Minor Leaguer whose one brief appearance in the Majors two years earlier ended with him 6-8 with a 6.58 ERA. But he worked on this new pitch, the forkball. As Face himself said, nobody in baseball was really throwing a forkball then. Rickey was intrigued.
And Face, armed with that new pitch, became an All-Star reliever who went 18-1 in 1959.
On a 17-year-old Bill Mazeroski, who would go into the Hall of Fame for his defensive prowess: "From a fielding standpoint, he's definitely a prospect."
On Duke shortstop Dick Groat, who later won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1960: "Could play shortstop on the Pittsburgh club much better than anyone we now have."
On future All-Star Bob Friend: "He has every pitch he needs -- fastball and curveball, and changeup on each. And all four are effective. He needs no instruction on any of them."
Then, there's Rickey's famous scouting report of Clemente where he was disappointed in the running speed ("His running form is bad, definitely bad.") and impressed with his "beautiful throwing arm."
"His form at the plate," Rickey wrote, "is perfect."
Naturally, Rickey was not perfect. He did overrate some. This is my favorite one.
"I think he's a great prospective hitter -- with power. Form perfect. Reminds one of Joe DiMaggio very much." That is what he wrote about Jack Shepard, who hit .304 in part-time duty in 1954, though he didn't exactly remind anyone else of DiMaggio.
"Throws his fastball about three-quarters, and it spins very slowly, is a heavy ball. He calls it the ball that does something. Can throw the fastball overhand with good spin, direct backward rotation, but says it doesn't do anything. I asked where he found that out, and he said that he thought about it." -- Rickey's report of Robert Gordon, 1951
I want to spend a second on this wonderful scouting report, because it has to be one of the earlier references to fastball spin rates. These days, spin rates are the rage. We now know that extremely high spin rates on the fastball will create the illusion of the ball rising -- the ball doesn't actually rise, but it fights gravity and drops at a slower pace.
Very low spin rates, meanwhile, like on changeups, will cause the ball to drop more quickly, leading perhaps to ground balls, double plays and other good things for pitchers. Gordon clearly knew how to throw a low-spin-rate fastball that would "do something." His high-spin-rate pitch, meanwhile, probably wasn't high enough, and that's why it didn't do anything.
I love that Rickey was at least thinking about this 67 years ago.

There are so many things in the scouting reports that I love like that -- well, they don't necessarily add up to anything. But they're fun. And they give us just a little bit clearer picture of how Rickey thought.
For instance, there was this bit of wisdom in a scouting report for a player Rickey called Carlsyn: "The difference between a thrower and a pitcher is the difference between a naked man and a man all dressed up."
And this on a pitcher named Arthur Bunge: "The best control of a fastball I have ever seen in any youngster. For about 10 straight pitches, a tomato can would have caught nine of them."
Dennis Meekins "hit, but did not look like a hitter." Bob Purkey, who would go on to an All-Star career, was "a deliberate cuss -- his mind rules his body." And poor Brandy Davis was, "born short. Not the boy's fault he will not go anywhere. Correctly chargeable to his ancestry, immediate or remote. Take your pick. Probably both."
And there was this incredible exchange Rickey had with a left-handed pitcher named Jim Hayden:
"Are you married, Jim?"
"No, I ain't."
"Are you about to be?"
"No, but I am in sort of a mess, though."
"Oh, is that so -- what about?"
"About this damn curveball."
"What's that got to do with your girl, if any?"
"Girl? Who said anything about a girl. What I'm talking about is the mess with this curveball."
"I don't see any reason, and I cannot think of any, why he should not hit. This may not be good English, but it makes good sense to me." -- Rickey's report of Warren Goodrich, 1955
One of the things about being a pioneer is that it's hard to imagine a world without the contribution. In other words, yes, we know Rickey was the first to sign a black player, but surely someone else would have eventually. Somebody probably would have come up with the Minor League system as we know it.
Rickey hired Allan Roth, often called the first sabermetrician in baseball. Well, somebody would have figured out that better data could help a team win.
But this is to misunderstand history. We don't know the alternative. We don't know how much longer baseball would have stayed segregated without Rickey. Would we have had Aaron and Willie Mays? We simply don't know how baseball would be shaped without Rickey's efforts.
"Baseball people -- and that includes myself -- are slow to change and accept new ideas," Rickey famously said. Perhaps. But Rickey, fortunately for the game, was much less slow than the others.
Rickey stayed in baseball to the end. On Nov. 13, 1965, he gave a speech as he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Rickey's theme was "Spiritual and Moral Courage." He told a story about the old Cardinals player Jim Bottomley, who suffered a serious left-hip injury. Bottomley, Rickey said, insisted on playing, and was told that if he had to slide, he should do so on his right side, so not to hurt himself all over again.
Late in the game, Bottomley stole second -- and he slid on his left side, badly reinjuring his left hip. He still came around to score the winning run.
"After the game," Rickey told the crowd, "I asked him, 'Why, Jim, did you do that?' And Jim looked at me and said, 'Rick, didn't you see the shortstop standing there? I had to make the slide on the left to avoid being tagged.'"
"It was," Rickey concluded, "the price of courage."
Seconds later, Rickey collapsed. It was his last public statement. He died less than a month later.