Rickey’s legacy goes beyond Robinson

sports@macon.comApril 15, 2013 

It was great to see a full stadium at Luther Williams Field last week, even if it was just a movie. If you haven’t seen the new biopic “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, you should make plans to do so as it is definitely worthwhile.

As you probably know, some of the movie was filmed in Macon. It was fun watching how the producers turned today’s Macon streets into downtown Sanford, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1940s and how Luther Williams was transformed into City Island Park in Daytona Beach. The real City Island Ball Park was renamed for Robinson in 1989.

The relationship between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and how they integrated Major League Baseball is the focus of the film. It details the trials and tribulations that Robinson endured in making it to the major leagues as the sport’s first black player. Rickey, portrayed by Harrison Ford in the movie, was the catalyst for changing baseball forever as he recruited Robinson to become the trailblazer.

Ford, who acknowledges that he is not a baseball fan, was very convincing portraying the bushy eyebrowed, cigar-smoking Rickey.

While Rickey is best known for his involvement with Robinson, he had plenty of other accomplishments that were not mentioned in “42.” He spent the majority of his life around baseball as a player, manager and front office executive. He played baseball and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan College and earned a law degree from Michigan, where he also served as baseball head coach.

Rickey played four seasons in the major leagues as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders. He holds an infamous record more than a century after he played, giving up 13 stolen bases in one game.

He spent more than two decades in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, serving at different times as team president, field manager and business manager (general manager). During his tenure with the Cardinals, he is credited with inventing what is considered today’s farm system. His most famous team with the Cardinals was the Gas House Gang, featuring Dizzy Dean, who won 30 games in 1934 en route to a World Series title, beating the Detroit Tigers in seven games.

Rickey left the Cardinals in 1942 and took over as president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. His defining moment with the Dodgers, of course, was the signing of Robinson, but he also was credited with establishing the first full-time spring training facility, “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach, Fla. While with the Dodgers, he pioneered the use of statistical analysis in baseball and encouraged the use of batting cages and pitching machines. He also drafted future Hall of Famer Robert Clemente, baseball’s first Latin American superstar.

After the Dodgers were sold to a group of four businessmen in 1950, his equity in the Brooklyn club was bought out for more than $1 million, and he moved on to Pittsburgh as the Pirates’ president and general manager before retiring in 1955. While with the Pirates, he mandated the use of batting helmets for all players. He had come up the idea of that safety device back during his time with the Cardinals, and, in fact, was part owner of a company that produced them.

Rickey had a deep Christian faith and would not attend his team’s games on Sundays. His faith and many achievements earned him the nickname ‘The Mahatma.”

A sculpture of Rickey, constructed at Coors Field in Denver in 2004, is inscribed. “It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.” Rickey definitely left a lasting heritage. He was elected to Major League’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.

As a side note, more than six decades after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, only 8.5 percent of major league players on opening day rosters this season were black Americans, according to a New York Times story published Wednesday.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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