Written by Jacob F. Garcia
Senior Staff Writer, Special Assignment Writer
Baseball is a game of continually being humbled but still coming out fighting. Always improving, wanting the next chapter to be better than the last, in a sense.
Few embody this spirit quite as well as Branch Barrett Rickey.
Branch, the son of Branch Rickey, Jr. and the grandson of "THE" Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson, effectively breaking the color barrier. But when it comes to Branch B. Rickey, his story is so much more than a family tradition.
His story begins in a fairly humble atmosphere - on a farm. His grandfather had bought it when they left New York for Pittsburgh. Branch Jr. built a home on the very edge of the farm - his son, Branch B. Rickey, was raised with horses, poultry and cattle.
As a young boy, he didn’t spend much time around the game.
“I was very, very fortunate that my family didn’t believe in having smaller kids around the ballpark, around the office and around the clubhouse” Rickey recalled. “Consequently, my involvement early on was fairly limited to dialog at home and occasional ballgames and meeting players in spring training.”
But he did recall one time where he, his siblings and his father were staying in a hotel in Philadelphia, after a road trip visiting minor league teams. The next morning, his father decided he needed a hair cut and asked then not quite 5 year old Branch if he would like to come along.
"So we started out for him to get the haircut but he had forgotten his wallet so he needed to run back up to the room. And so my father said to a couple of players in the lobby 'would you look after my boy?'...so they were stuck with me. And these two guys took me out to the front steps, that were broad and wide, and they got a ball while one got behind me and the other in front and they would toss the ball with me. They were the first two players I had ever met. Half a year later, a record came out and I made mention of this to someone with the Hall of Fame and sure enough he went online, found, and sent me a 50 year old 78 record cover with the record in it. I got the chance to play it. I listened to it maybe 100 times, possibly 100 times consecutively. And it had on it two people talking back and forth. They were saying things about the upcoming games and their practices. The people on the cover were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. They were the two guys who helped me out on the steps of the Warwick Hotel and watched after me. They became childhood heroes of mine, they're still my heroes."
However, this did change as he grew up.
“After my father died following the 1960 World Series (that we were so fortunate to win), I started working in the front office between my sophomore and junior year, then the following summer between junior and senior year, as an office boy.”
His family had been known for incredible innovations, but Branch did something that would help show just how innovative he could be.
“I think I had shown a little gumption, a special zeal for doing something out of the ordinary because all those runs I made to the White Castle (to purchase coffee for his office mates). I finally bought a big sixty cup coffee percolator and some over sized glass mugs and had my sisters paint on everyone’s initials” Branch said with a sense of achievement, “I brought in a high-end coffee - I went and bought Chock full O’Nuts because Jackie Robinson was vice-president of the company at the time.” Thus, leading to him under-cutting Whitecastle by about 30-40% and effectively proving his business savvy at a young age.
As he progressed in the world of professional baseball, he gained some attention from the big club, and six days before his graduation from high school, he received a phone call that just about every young baseball fan would drool over.
“They [the Pirates] called me up and told me the General Manager of the rookie league team down in the Appalachian League in Kingsport, Tennessee had a tough thing happen to him and wanted to know if I’d drive down to Kingsport and run the team.”
This job offer, in the eyes of many, was more than warranted. He spoke about how he would stay in the press box until 2:30am and write game recaps for the local media and wake up at the "crack of dawn to get the mail and get the next day going...".
His hard work even garnered a mention in Sports Illustrated, but he still holds pride in his numbers.
"In my senior year, I had the good fortune to be written up in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd and I've always claimed it was because they cited my batting average. It had nothing to do with anything, of course. I was a paltry batter...I got written up because I was named Business Manger of the Kingsport Pirates but they mentioned my batting average in that little box! So I've always claimed it was because of my great baseball ability" he laughed robustly.
Though his life wouldn't be entirely wrapped up in the game of baseball, he found himself serving in a completely new way - in the Peace Corps.
"The Peace Corps was fantastic, because, if nothing else, I was spending years in places where English wasn't spoken. Getting exposed to Spanish to that degree and being able to come back and then be immersed in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization where, at one point, we were asking for more visas for Latin players to come in than all the other baseball teams combined - so coming to work in the minor leagues the ability to relate to the Spanish speaking players equally as well as I did to the English speaking players, it was great fun. Great fun."
He enjoyed the Peace Corps so much he didn't want to want leave. He was climbing the ranks, he knew his future was bright. That would all change with one single phone call, just like when he was a younger man.
"I got call to get involved with the Kansas City Royals Academy. It was a fantastic experiment. It was a phenomenally innovative area where science was equally on the forefront. And it appealed to me so much, and I said yes to that opportunity quicker than I had time to think 'wait a second, what are you throwing away?' but it was an opportunity to get back into professional baseball."
Most might find their jaws dropping as Rickey went down a list of his alumni from the Academy. Name likes Frank White and Ron Washington.
But after quite a few years, Branch was now sitting on top of his profession as league president of the American Association, but Major League Baseball had just done what it had been aiming to do for years: expand. The league grew from 28 teams to 30. And with that, came the issue of expanding MiLB (Triple-A, specifically) from 28 to 30.
"The earliest solutions seemed to encompass that it would be Memphis and Durham, and that the Durham club had expressed some interest in joining the American Association which would've brought the league up from eight to ten clubs. But very much on the heels of that, Durham said that they had re-analyzed it and realized they needed to be in the International League. And that would mean the International League would go from 10 to 11, and the American Association from eight to nine," the lively Rickey would explain. "So we pulled together an Expansion Re-Organization Committee, which had leadership from all three leagues, and we set about to try and solve that. It pretty much came by way of a decision from the IL that there was no way they could go west of Louisville, KY. They wanted to contain their geography and they thought that Louisville was as dramatically west as anything that should be expected of that league, while they took in the three most prestigious clubs (attendance wise) of the American Association! They got Louisville, Indianapolis and Buffalo and I'm still competitive over it...but that left 16 clubs spread across three time zones and Bill Cutler took a look at that realized that wasn't his cup of tea, with his personal health issues - particularly his knees and his inability to get around."
So what did Branch do? He rose above the five other candidates, who each had their own following of support.
"I don't think that when I was elected, necessarily, any significant portion of the Pacific Coast League thought I was the right guy for the job. I wasn't all that familiar with them and they weren't all that familiar with me...I had never really had much time to spend time with the PCL leadership/ownership and operators, and so the fact that each of the five candidates had five backers, and no one wanted to give up their support...meant that when they all were going to give in, they were going to give in and let a guy who wasn't one of the five be league president."
Once everything became sorted, he had one more task to do before settling in as league president - selecting the home for the league office. So he decided the best, most central location for said office would be Colorado Springs.
"It was a heaven sent transition", he proudly stated. "It has been so wonderfully, wonderfully rewarding."
As our conversation continued, we spoke about a myriad of topics. One point of interest that arose was surrounding race, ethnicity and baseball.
"It doesn't take a person with 20/20 eyesight to understand that some of the pressures that influence the situation include the fact that...in inner cities, you could go and find dozens and dozens of different parks and areas where you could have a game of baseball. And what has happened in our urban areas is they have been squeezed and evaporated. They've [opportunities to play] been eliminated all together in so many instances. So obviously for the African-Americans that live in metropolitan areas...they haven't necessarily left the game. One could argue, the game has left them."
Finally, we discussed his legacy.
"I'd like to think I'm still working on that" he said, responding to my question about his legacy. "I'm not quite at that point where I'm willing to see myself in the rear view mirror. I far more enjoy the proactive lifestyle of focusing on the sun coming up tomorrow and the unexpected again popping up. The horizon holding just so many things we need to start spotting now so we can aim ourselves in the right directions and prepare ourselves. There's no question that I estimated, when in my early teen years - I felt the expectations that came along with having a baseball legacy were a little bit unfair, especially for someone who was shy publicly like I was. The word legacy was not a happy word to me, but there's no question of what I feel that in my subsequent years as I started seeing so many ways in which my family had set the right examples for me and that baseball was such a wonderful vehicle for helping to address some of our issues. The influence of this game can be so positive when it is done in the right way."
And as we did so discuss, I realized something that we all might forget: baseball isn't everything. Yes, the sport in itself is incredibly captivating, but there is life outside of it. We spoke about his family, his wife, two daughters and five grandchildren. We spoke about his regrets, his successes and so much more.
"I take the word legacy and my legacy in a much different context and I realized it's a fabulous thing when you can leave a legacy that is exemplary," he waxed poetically, "but for me..that's premature. I'm not about legacies, I'm still hopefully targeted and very much excited about what this is all about going forward."
Branch B. Rickey isn't just mailing it in or letting time pass by as the years go on, he's still focused on the matters at hand. He's still working on what he wants to be remembered for, each and every day. Rickey isn't just building a legacy, he's living a legacy.