Kindred Spirits, Humble Heroes: Branch Rickey and William Wilberforce

Branch Rickey was a baseball man, through and through. During more than a half century in the game he brought remarkable players and World Series championships to three great cities, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh.

Most notably, perhaps, Rickey brought dignity and integrity to the game, when, 60 years ago this April 15, he ignored unanimous opposition by the other 15 major league team owners and signed a black player, Jackie Robinson, to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Thus, Rickey’s story is not just about baseball. It is a story of vision, courage, and service, not unlike that of England’s great abolitionist, William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce introduced a bill in the House of Commons to abolish slavery in 1791. He did so each year, until, in 1807, his bill passed. He did not then tire or tarry. He labored yet another quarter century to aid the slaves he helped free.

Wilberforce’s life-long aid for slaves took root following an epiphany he had in 1785. Branch Rickey had his own epiphany in 1903 when he, as a 22-year-old head coach, took his Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team to play the University of Notre Dame. When they arrived at South Bend’s old Oliver Hotel, the desk clerk said, asserts Rev. Bob Olmstead, a Methodist minister in Palo Alto, "’I have rooms for all of you — except for him’ — and he pointed to the team’s catcher, Charley Thomas, who was black.

"’Why don’t you have a room for him,’ Rickey asked.

"’Because our policy is whites only.’

"Rickey responded, ‘I’d like to have Charley stay in my room. Can you bring in a cot?’ After long deliberations, the innkeeper relented. Rickey sent the ball players to their rooms. But when he got to his room Charley Thomas was sitting on a chair sobbing.
Rickey recounted later, ‘Charley was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands. He looked at me and said, "It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin, it’s my skin, Mr. Rickey!"’ Years later those hands were the healing hands of a highly successful dentist, Dr. Charles Thomas.

He never forgot his coach and Branch Rickey never forgot that experience.

As did Wilberforce’s 1785 Christian awakening, Rickey’s 1903 awakening drove him for the remainder of his life. The evils the two men despised and disputed were two sides of the same coin.

Wilberforce confronted slavery, while Rickey challenged its bitter residue, "Jim Crow" laws.

In 1944, after becoming president of the Dodgers, Rickey told a friend, "For 41 years, I have heard that young man [Charles Thomas] crying. Now, I am going to do something about it. . . . I am going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers."

Three years later, he did! Literally, Rickey filled the hollow notes in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address — "All men are created equal" — and gave them resilience and resonance, for millions of baseball fans everywhere in the nation, black and white, north and south.

Thus, Branch Rickey, a white lawyer, and Jackie Robinson, a black athlete, peacefully–without government incentive or intervention–challenged and changed baseball and the nation, seven years before the Supreme Court rendered Brown v. Board of Education; 16 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his memorable "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial; and 17 years before Congress passed and the President signed the Civil Rights Act.

Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU for a quarter century, notes, "But before all that happened . . . a quiet drama was beginning in a small office in Brooklyn, New York, a drama that one observer later would call ‘perhaps the most visible single desegregation action ever taken.’"

Now, on this the 60th anniversary of that quiet drama, we must remember Rickey and Wilberforce. We must remember Robinson, too. Each man played a key role in our shared and continuing pursuit of liberty for all. Free people must never forget such men because they inspire us with their humility, grace, and courage. They help us to reach beyond ourselves.

Such heroes are gone from too many of our colleges and universities, but they endure, in our hearts, and in our souls.

Our clergy still remind us occasionally of such men as did Dr. Ralph Sockman of New York in his 1965 eulogy, as he reminded baseball and America, "Branch Rickey has been called the master mind of baseball. His vision made him that. But, he was also the master heart of baseball . . . . [H]e made goodness attractive to others." Isn’t that true of all heroes? Isn’t that what we must again teach our children?