The Lemelson Center is hard at work developing Game Changers, a multi-year exhibition, programming, and educational initiative that explores the roles of invention and technology in sport. In the course of my research, I’ve become fascinated by the career of team executive Branch Rickey. Rickey once joked that “baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas.”1 Yet during his sixty years in the game, Rickey introduced several innovations that modernized the national pastime.
Player, Coach, Executive
Wesley Branch Rickey was born in Stockdale, Ohio, in 1881. He graduated from Valley High School in Lucasville, Ohio, in 1899 and then attended Ohio Wesleyan University beginning in 1901. At Ohio Wesleyan, Rickey excelled academically and starred as a catcher on the baseball team. To earn some money during the summers, he played professionally for minor league baseball teams in Terre Haute, Indiana; Dallas, Texas; and Le Mars, Iowa, which made him ineligible to continue playing as a collegiate amateur. Instead, during his junior and senior years, Rickey coached the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team to a winning record. After graduating in 1904, Rickey spent two years teaching and coaching at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
Rickey then embarked on a brief and undistinguished career as a major league catcher for the St. Louis Browns (1905–1906) and New York Highlanders in 1907 (the Highlanders were officially renamed the New York Yankees in 1913). On offense, his batting average dropped below .200; on defense, an opposing team once stole thirteen bases in a single game, thanks to Rickey’s weak throwing arm.
Rickey returned to Ohio Wesleyan to coach baseball, football, and basketball teams from 1907 to 1909. He then enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Law School. In his second year, he signed on to coach the university’s baseball club; between 1910 and 1913, he earned a 68-32-4 record. Despite his limited success as a player, the St. Louis Browns rehired Rickey to serve as the team’s manager from 1913 to 1915.
Rickey’s managerial career was interrupted by his deployment to France as an Army officer during World War I. After the armistice, Rickey returned to Missouri and managed the crosstown St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1925. In 1925, after seven middling seasons, team president Sam Breadon relieved Rickey of his coaching duties, but retained him as the general manager in charge of scouting, acquisitions, player development, and business operations. At age 43, after a mediocre career as a player and manager, Rickey found his true calling as one of baseball’s most creative executives.
Creating the Minor League Farm System
Rickey’s first innovation was the establishment of the Cardinals’ minor league “farm system.” At the time, there were dozens of independent teams playing lower level baseball in regional “minor leagues.” Rickey and the Cardinals acquired seven minor league teams and repurposed them to serve as a feeder system for player development. Promising young players would train and work their way up the ranks—from the Cardinals’ Class A affiliates, through their AA and AAA teams—until they earned a spot on the major league team. On the strength of homegrown talents such as Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick, and Dizzy Dean, the Cardinals won three pennants and two World Series from 1930 to 1934. Other major league teams soon copied Rickey’s idea and created their own farm systems. Rickey’s Cardinals won another World Series in 1942, again drawing on former farm system players such as future Baseball Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.
Reimagining Spring Training
In 1942, the Brooklyn Dodgers enticed Rickey to leave the Cardinals and serve as the general manager for the “Bums.” Rickey soon expanded the scope and purpose of spring training. Since the 1880s, major league teams had annually spent one or two weeks in a warm weather locale like Texas or Florida to get in shape for the upcoming season. However, Rickey believed that spring training could be deployed strategically, not just for regaining fitness, but also for teaching the fundamentals and improving the players’ skills. Rickey envisioned an expanded training period in which players at all levels of the Dodgers organization would come together to practice the proper techniques for hitting, base running, pitching, and fielding. Moreover, by convening all of the Dodgers players together in one place, Rickey and the team’s coaches could evaluate their development and assign them to the Dodgers or one of its 26 minor league teams.
In 1947, Rickey leased a decommissioned naval base in Vero Beach, Florida, built several ballfields, fixed up the former barracks, and rechristened the compound as Dodgertown. In 1948, 550 players from the Dodgers and its minor league affiliates arrived in Florida for eight weeks of training camp. At Dodgertown, Rickey introduced now commonplace tools such as batting cages, hitting tees, and pitching machines. He also required players to wear batting helmets. Collectively, these modernizations helped batters safely take more practice swings without burning out his pitching staff. Rickey also introduced the simple technique of hanging up strings to help his pitchers visualize the strike zone. Other major league teams soon emulated the Dodgers’ expanded approach to spring training as a period for teaching and evaluation.
Embracing Statistical Analysis
Branch Rickey was also a pioneer in using statistical analysis to inform his decisions. In 1947, he hired Allan Roth as the first full time statistical analyst ever employed by a professional baseball club. Roth charted every Dodgers pitch and hit, analyzed the data, and made various recommendations to Rickey and the Dodgers coaches. For example, Roth was quick to recognize that the batting average statistic (hits/at bats) did not account for the value of disciplined hitters who reached base and scored runs by drawing walks. Instead, Roth emphasized the now common metric of on-base percentage, (hits + walks/plate appearances). Roth also discovered that right-handed batters hit better against left-handed pitchers (and vice versa) because they could see the ball better. This realization led to the now common practice of “platooning,” or substituting right-handed or left-handed players into the lineup depending on the opposing pitcher. Roth also tracked the long-term performance of Dodgers players and advised Rickey to trade them when their skills showed a statistical decline.
A 1954 feature article in Life magazine highlighted some of Rickey and Roth’s statistical work. The article, titled “Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” featured “the formula,” an equation that measured a team’s efficiency by comprehensively accounting for its hitting, pitching, and defense. Rickey described how he used the formula to pinpoint a team’s strengths and weaknesses. At the article’s conclusion, he presciently predicted that hidebound baseball executives would “accept this new interpretation of baseball statistics eventually.”2 However, that took fifty years. The publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball in 2003 signaled baseball's belated embrace of statistical analytics.
Integrating Major League Baseball
Rickey’s most important contribution to baseball, without question, was his decision to welcome African American players into the major leagues. Segregation was not an official policy among big league clubs, but instead an unwritten rule that confined black players to the so-called Negro leagues. At Ohio Wesleyan, Rickey had coached an integrated team featuring a black player named Charles Thomas; during a road trip, Thomas was denied hotel lodging. Thomas’s mistreatment made a lifelong impression on Rickey and inspired him to integrate the Dodgers.
On 28 August 1945, Rickey signed African American infielder Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract and assigned him to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' AAA affiliate. Robinson had been a multi-sport athlete at UCLA, an Army lieutenant during World War II, and a star for the Negro leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs. In Robinson, Rickey found an undeniable baseball talent, but more importantly, a man of great dignity who was disciplined enough not to respond to racist taunts. Robinson debuted at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947 and broke baseball’s color line. He went on to be named Rookie of the Year (1947) and Most Valuable Player (1949); win a World Series championship (1955); and be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (1962). More importantly, Robinson and Rickey opened up baseball to players of all stripes.
A Legacy of Innovation
In 1951, Rickey had a falling out with the Dodgers’ owners and left the team to become general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Health problems forced a temporary retirement in 1955, but Rickey eventually recovered and served as commissioner of the short-lived Continental League and as a consultant to the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey died of heart failure in December 1965 and was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
Rickey’s innovations—including the farm system, expanded spring training, statistical analytics, and an integrated game—are reflected everywhere across professional baseball. As historian Richard Puerzer has rightly suggested, “Branch Rickey’s fingerprints are on virtually every aspect of the modern game of baseball."3
1 Branch Rickey, “Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” Life, 2 August 1954, 78.
2 Ibid., 89.
3 Richard J. Puerzer, “Branch Rickey’s Innovative Approach to Baseball Management,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 85.
“Branch Rickey,” Ohio Wesleyan University, https://www.owu.edu/about/history-traditions/branch-rickey/, accessed 26 November 2019.
Breslin, Jimmy. Branch Rickey. New York: Viking, 2011.
Cosgrove, Ben. “LIFE with Dem Bums: Spring Training at Dodgertown, 1948,” Time.com, 28 February 2013, https://time.com/3711159/life-with-dem-bums-spring-training-at-dodgertown-1948/. This web article reprints the George Silk photos used in Life’s original 5 April 1948 story.
Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Lowenfish, Lee. Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
McCue, Andy. “Allan Roth: The First Front Office Statistician,” Baseball Research Journal 43 no. 1 (Spring 2014), https://sabr.org/research/allan-roth-first-front-office-statistician.
McMurray, John. “Branch Rickey Revolutionized Baseball In More Ways Than One,” Investor’s Business Daily, 12 April 2017, https://www.investors.com/news/management/leaders-and-success/branch-rickey-revolutionized-baseball-in-more-ways-than-one/.
Polner, Murray. Branch Rickey: A Biography. New York: Athenaeum, 1982.
Puerzer, Richard J. “Branch Rickey’s Innovative Approach to Baseball Management,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 72-87.
“Rickey, Branch,” Baseball Hall of Fame, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/rickey-branch, accessed 26 November 2019.
Rickey, Branch. “Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” Life (2 August 1954): 78-89. Available through Google Books.