As a catcher, Branch Rickey was mediocre. As a manager of baseball teams, he was innovative and his ideas improved the game we know today.
His decision to sign Jackie Robinson helped alter Americans’ attitudes toward black athletes. On April 15, 1947 — 66 years ago this month — Jackie Robinson strode onto Ebbets Field, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the game’s unwritten color barrier. Robinson had promised Rickey he would not fight back when racial epithets were hurled at him.
Rickey grew up on a farm in Ohio and was raised as a Methodist. Out of respect for his faith, he never attended a baseball game on Sunday. Owlish, rumpled and folksy, he had bushy eyebrows and an ever-present cigar in his hand.
He developed the farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, a model adopted by all other Major League teams. He also pioneered the use of baseball statistics. An ownership change at the Dodgers brought Rickey to Pittsburgh as general manager of the Pirates. In the 1952, 1953 and 1954 seasons, the team lost 100 games, prompting local sportswriters to call the players “Rickey Dinks.”
Rickey also traded the best player on the Pirates — Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, a left fielder and home run champion. Rickey traded Kiner in 1953 when the star slugger had a salary dispute with the Pirates.
“If I can finish last with you, I can finish last without you,” Rickey told him.
Rickey signed Curtis Roberts, the Pirates’ first African-American Major League player. The second baseman played his first game with the team in April 1954.
A year later, Roberto Clemente debuted with the Pirates in the first game of a double-header against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was partly responsible for choosing Clemente in the rookie draft.
Also during the 1950s, Rickey became the first general manager in baseball to order every player on the team to wear a batting helmet. He owned stock in the company that made the helmets.