By Aaron Leibowitz
(This piece was originally published at The Cauldron: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/on-branch-rickey-and-the-negro-leagues-f5bb56cd0dfe)
Remember when you first learned that Christopher Columbus was not really some Explorer Extraordinaire, but was actually a pretty terrible human being? That’s how I felt recently — albeit to a much lesser degree — when I dug deeper into the relationship between Branch Rickey and the Negro Leagues.
The story of Rickey and Jackie Robinson, as told in classrooms across the United States, is equal parts reality and fairy tale. Rickey, of course, is the man who signed Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. And racial segregation in baseball did end in 1947, when No. 42 made his Major League debut. Brooklyn’s General Manager undeniably believed that integrating the game was the right thing to do, and his actions surely took a certain degree of courage; though relatively little compared to what Robinson mustered each time he stepped into the batter’s box. All of this is true.
And it’s also terribly oversimplified.
As a little kid obsessed with the Mets — thanks in large part to my grandparents’ Brooklyn roots — knowing the story of Rickey and Robinson made me proud to be a baseball fan. Jackie Robinson, American Hero. Branch Rickey, White Savior — the man with the moral fiber to challenge a separate-but-unequal system and pave the way for hundreds of black players to reach baseball’s biggest stage.
Over the years, I’ve come to view that Disney-esque narrative compromised. I learned that Rickey could never have signed Robinson if not for a preceding social protest movement against Jim Crow, spearheaded in baseball by black journalists. I learned that Robinson was much more than a man who kept his head down and refused to fight back; he had complex political views that changed over time and ranged from conservative to radically progressive. I learned that the weight of the abuse Robinson endured during his career took a massive toll on his well-being.
I also learned that MLB’s integration sparked the demise of the Negro Leagues, but I had little knowledge of who was really responsible.
Last week, with MLB celebrating its annual Jackie Robinson Day and every player donning No. 42, I decided to do some deep-dive investigative reporting (okay, it was a Google search) to better understand Rickey’s role in the unraveling of what was, at the time, America’s largest black-owned business. What I found surprised me.
On the day he signed Robinson in 1945, here’s what Rickey had to say about the Negro Leagues, according to William C. Rhoden in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete:
“There is no Negro League as such as far as I’m concerned. [They] are not leagues and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them.”
In accordance with this line of thinking, Rickey refused to compensate Negro League owners when he acquired their players, and other MLB clubs followed suit. This was exactly what Rube Foster — the “father of black baseball” and one of the game’s best pitchers in the early 1900s — had feared. Foster knew that unless entire Negro League franchises were absorbed by MLB, the latter simply would pluck the best black talent and ultimately ensure the demise of its competition.
Owners of Negro League teams, enjoying a period of prosperity in 1947, were blindsided. Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, for example, “put too much emphasis on merely having players in the Major Leagues and not enough weight on negotiating an appropriate role for the Negro Leagues themselves in the integration process.”
For several years after Robinson’s Dodgers debut, the Negro Leagues served as a player pipeline of sorts for MLB until, in 1951, when minor league teams in the South desegregated, the Negro Leagues were rendered useless for MLB’s purposes. Rickey, who in the 1930s was the first to formalize the farm system as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, was among those who pushed for the integration of the Southern minor leagues.
“Black participation in ownership was demolished for decades to come,” Rhoden explains.
“Certainly, Robinson’s presence in itself challenged white supremacy and his acceptance was a symbol for the black masses bombarded with falsehoods of black physical and mental inferiority,” writes Malaika Jabali of For Harriet. “But the other side of integration that is rarely acknowledged goes beyond this symbolism: Robinson’s role ultimately was to stifle one of the few institutions of black economic power that, after almost a century, blacks have yet to reach in any athletic league.”
Beyond his refusal to acknowledge or compensate Negro League teams, Rickey also made a point of telling black fans how to respond to Robinson’s groundbreaking achievement. Prior to the 1947 season, Rickey met with a group of 30 elite black New Yorkers and told them, according to Robinson biographer Arnold Rampersad, that “the one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson’s] success is the Negro people themselves.”
“You’ll hold Jackie Robinson days and Jackie Robinson nights,” Rickey said. “You’ll get drunk. You’ll fight. You’ll be arrested. You’ll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You’ll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy.”
Branch Rickey was bold, brash and courageous. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time, and he went to great lengths to protect Robinson and make him feel welcome in Brooklyn. But he was also a political and social conservative, supporting the temperance movement and becoming a staunch anti-Communist later in life. Above all, he was a businessman, seeing green in the integration of baseball and seeing the Negro Leagues as a stumbling block on the road to economic control.
None of this is to say Rickey was a “bad person.” Rather, it’s to point out that the historical figures we often anoint as saints are complicated; history is complicated, even if it surrounds the awe-inspiring tale of a national hero. The truth, more often than not, is not so pretty.
“A black institution was dead,” Rhoden writes, “while a white institution grew richer and stronger.”
That’s part of the Rickey and Robinson story. And it’s too important for teachers and baseball lovers to ignore.