Monday, December 17, 2007

Mr. Rickey

Another day goes by, as the sports media pokes major holes in the Mitchell Report (oddly enough, Sports Illustrated and other mainstream sites seem much more willing to let the Mitchell Report fly as is).
For this blog, though, I am here to talk about the past. The distant past. In particular, a certain Hall-of-Fame executive named Branch Rickey.
I have the greatest admiration for Branch Rickey both for what he accomplished on the field and off. He built up dynasties wherever he went (except Pittsburgh, but nobody's perfect), proved an innovator in new baseball knowledge, technology, and methodology, and most importantly, was the man on the inside to bring down baseball's color barrier.
Does Rickey have his faults? Certainly. He was, notoriously, a skinflint and cheapskate and a person whose person morality did not curtail his business deals/trades/swindles. And as for the breaking of the color line, Rickey had more than morality on his mind when he made this particular move. But for all that, Rickey was still one of the most important men in baseball history. And while his motives were not always as morally pure as his long-winded speeches, no less an authority than Jackie Robinson himself offers no doubt that did have more than dollars, cents, and pennants on his mind when he broke baseball's color barrier.

That's the short version, and there's a lot more out there to fill in the gaps. I'm still trying to track down some Rickey books myself, and so far the best one I've read is Baseball's Great Experiment, Jules Tygiel's account of baseball integration.
Recently, though, I came upon Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book: Wit and Strategy from Baseball's Last Wise Man. The book was edited by John J. Monteleone from Rickey's personal papers, reams of which are apparently stored at the Baseball Library in Cooperstown. I only wish Mr. Monteleone had given us 400 pages of vintage Branch rather than 138.
I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in baseball, Rickey, or some nuggets of wisdom. Rickey was a famous blowhard, and it takes a bit of an effort to cut through the wind to get to the substance, but make no mistake about it; Rickey had a lot to say, and a lot of it was very important and cutting-edge. All of the sportswriters who moaned and groaned about "El Cheapo" should have paid more attention to what he was saying, not to mention the product on the field.
And so I've decided to pick out some of my favorite Rickey-isms as excerpts to give you a taste of the man known as the "Mahatma."

"Luck is the residue of design."
Some modern sabermetricians would disagree, but even then I think Rickey's point is still valid on its face; a lot of things that could be taken as good luck are really the result of someone positioning themselves in the best way possible to exploit their resources. Therefore what may seem to be luck or a fluke is really just excellent planning.

"Our club [the Pirates] finished in last place in 1953. We hope to find ourselves in a contending position at the earliest possible time. Therefore, we must have in mind the employment of whatever agents, or methods, or procedures, or practices, or gadgets calculated to hasten the improvement of our players. No last place team, it seems to me, can rely on the play of fortune to bring to hand suddenly and without cause a coterie of great players."
Still true today. Although Rickey does go on to say that the most effective thing a last place team can do is "lift ourselves over the fence by our own bootstraps." Such optimism and positive thinking is vintage Rickey and can become a bit obnoxious after a few paragraphs.

On the trade that sent Rogers Hornsby away from the Cardinals to the Giants:
"Had I been in sole charge, Hornsby never would have left St. Louis ... personal affront (a roiling feud between owner Sam Breadon and Hornsby) is never enough to justify a move of such magnitude."
Such was Mr. Rickey's view of the importance of team "chemistry" as compared to winning.

Also included is Rickey's famous bit of free verse where he justified his distaste for Ralph Kiner by comparing him to Babe Ruth. While I'm not Kiner's biggest fan, you just can't judge any ballplayer against Ruth. And, as Bill James has pointed out in his Historical Baseball Abstract, Rickey either had some personal issue with Kiner or he was just really desperate to be rid of him and looking for a justification.

"Runs batted in don't amount to a darn -- maybe a little . . . the batting order determines most."
Sixty years ago, and still this bit of wisdom hasn't penetrated the major sports media centers of America.

"Courage is a by-product of form. Form is the horse and courage is the cart. Professional baseball players are not 'yellow.' As a class, they are not tainted with physical cowardice ... Lack of acquantainceship with any new job produces initial indecision or hesitation or timid approach."
More people, especially parents and coaches of youth leagues, should dwell on this wise observation.

"Coaching is not a matter of compulsion but of fertility of suggestion. It may not work for Bill like it would work for Steve or John or Dick."
This is essentially the same credo espoused by Johnny Sain, one of the greatest pitching coaches ever, whose independent and individual style made him a hero to major league pitchers everywhere and got him fired every couple years.

"It doesn't do any good to tell a young player not to strike out."

"... in general use, more is lost by the hit-and-run than is gained by it."
This despite the fact that Rickey was, in general, a big believer in "fundamentals," which maybe was more important 50 years ago than it is now ... either that, or old guys are eternally grouchy about fundamentals. Rickey was a big fan of bunting and base-stealing, although he did stress that players should spend more time on bunting for a hit and less on sacrificing.

"When you're eighteen years old and can't run fast, you'll never run fast. If you can't throw the ball hard at eighteen, you never will. If you haven't got a heart at eighteen, you'll never get one later on. If your morals are bad at eighteen, you'll never improve."
That's Branch Rickey for you. Obsessing over the morality of America's youth, with the idea that an honest sporting experience can keep a young man's heart away from vice. I guess it's easier to find Rickey's morality quaint if you didn't have to live with it from day to day.

"The farm system, which I have been given credit for developing, originated from a perfectly selfish motive: saving money."
Unexpected candor from Mr. Rickey. He does go on to say why he thinks the farm system was and is great for baseball, and the minor leagues themselves. Many would disagree, most notably Judge Landis, who thought the farm system would kill the minors (which it sorta did) and fought Rickey at every opportunity over the idea.

"The educational method in baseball has given rise to the lecture room. Not all players can absorb instruction and gain proficiency from the spoken or written word. To some, the manager or coach will simply cast his breath on the desert air. However, he should employ the instruction method if he has one or more who may benefit greatly from his counsel. Even the blackboard, once so utterly ridiculed, has now become a mark among the more intelligent managers."
Rickey had little patience for baseball traditions that were, to him, anti-intellectual nonsense that did more harm than good. The book mentions (if only in passing), Rickey's hiring of Allen Roth, the first statistician to be hired on as part of a major league team. Rickey eventually recognized the value of what Roth (a sabermetric pioneer) had to say, and he must also have been tempted by a source of knowledge that other teams were not taking advantage of. Sadly, when Rickey left the Dodgers, Roth's data became good fodder for Vin Scully's broadcasts, but had a much smaller effect on baseball operations.
It's always been fascinating to me that baseball, alone among sports, disdains technology and modern advances. This has improved in recent years, of course, but only at a snail's pace and with great resistance. Look at football: there you have a wealth of X's and O's, many complicated and intricate plays committed to writing and thus to memory, and a system of headphone communication that allows the coach to communicate with his subordinates on and off the field. Technological advances have become a part of the clubhouse culture of football without any great uprising against it.
Why can't something similar happen in baseball? I think Mr. Rickey would approve.

Scouting report on Duke Snider (1947): "Duke Snider is going to be a great hitter when he learns the strike zone is not high and outside."

On his own method of determining pitching aptitude: "This ... helps find the prospects who are in the twilight zone, those borderline cases on which you must make a prediction of future success. It's no trick to spot the greats or humpty-dumpties."
Such is the goal of all baseball ops people: to find the prospects who are in "the twilight zone;" not so talented that everyone else has already noticed it, and talented enough that it's worth spending your time on them. Enough of these percentage of these players become stars that it's worth your while to work with them.

We have to be careful about television because the tail could wag the dog.
It should be said that Rickey (like most baseball executives of his day) hated televised baseball in general and thought it would kill attendance. That has not come to pass, but the statement above is telling; the money involved in broadcasting rights for baseball games is so high that baseball is forced to cede most of its broadcast autonomy to the networks.

"... nor were we ever distrustful of Mr. Rickey's motives. He was a man of integrity, and we could trust him. Whatever his mixed motives may have been, he became a lifelong friend, someone we admired tremendously."
-- Rachel Robinson

Above all, the factor that most influences my admiration of Branch Rickey is that he was so admired by Jackie and Rachel Robinson. If you read Jackie's book, I Never Had It Made, you come away with a great respect for Rickey, just from the way Jackie speaks of him.
There were many people, black and white, who accused Rickey of just using Jackie and the racial cause for his own personal gain. And there were also many within the black community who disdained Jackie's status as a hero and simply considered him a pawn who had been used by the white man.
While there is some truth to the charges that Rickey's actions were not all racially motivated, I strongly disagree with any characterization of Jackie Robinson as a pawn, or any attempt to denigrate what he did because he did it in cooperation with a white man. Any cursory look at Jackie Robinson's life will show you that he was a fiercely intelligent and proud man who was no one's pawn. He knew as well as anyone that Rickey had other reasons for breaking the color line, and he knew that the MLB power structure only accepted him when they saw how much revenue he (and other African-Americans) generated. But that never lessened his respect for Branch Rickey as a man. That alone is enough for me. If Jackie Robinson had that much respect for him, then so do I.

"A moderate is a moral pickpocket."
Rickey, in regards to the plight of African-Americans in the U.S., 1956

"I don't like any 'ism' whose existence depends on force."
I'll hazard a guess and say that this is in reference to communism, as Rickey was a fervent anti-Communist. But when applied to any ideology, left- or right-wing, it's still very insightful, and something I would agree with even today.

In reference to Leo Durocher: "He has the most fertile talent in the world for making a bad situation infinitely worse."
The stories of Durocher and Rickey's rocky relationship with the Dodgers are entertaining. Sometimes I think Durocher went out and did crazy things just to see if he could make Rickey's eyebrows catch fire.

"Mr. Rickey had a heart of gold and he kept it."
-- Gene Hermanski

And lastly, a short aphorism that Rickey framed and hung in his office wherever he went:

He that will not reason is a bigot
He that cannot reason is a fool
He that dares not reason is a slave

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