Branch Rickey: Baseball's Chief Innovator

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IMarch 22, 2010

DENVER - JUNE 2:  Sculptor George Lundeen's  'The Player' honors the late Branch Rickey and is unveiled on June 2, 2005 in Denver, Colorado. The sculpture was presented by Rotary Club of Denver in commemoration of their annual Branch Rickey Award and was unveiled prior to the Colorado Rockies hosting the St. Louis Cardinals at Coors Field.  The Rockies defeated the Cardinals 8-7.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Everything was originally conceived and/or invented by someone. In baseball, a lot of the game's features that we are familiar with today were invented by one man: Branch Rickey.

Rickey wasn't just a general manager, player, team president, part owner, or any of the other titles held over his lengthy career. He was baseball's chief innovator.

He's perhaps best known for his work to integrate the game of baseball by signing Jackie Robinson and installing him on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

That work, however important, is only part of his legacy.

Farm Systems

So much is made of the farm system today and how the success or failure of an organization to build one is tied directly with their long-term success.

However, most people don't know where the farm systems came from.

After the new century dawned, the American League made peace with the National and both settled into a comfortable competitive balance. Then, teams began to focus on how best to acquire talent.

Rickey had an idea.

Minor league teams had been bound to the majors by a major-minor agreement for some time. Teams routinely bought players from minor league clubs and procedures were in place to assure compensation.

If you were already buying players from certain clubs, why not form a partnership?

Rickey began buying stock in various minor league clubs and tying them to his major league team, the St. Louis Cardinals. This allowed Rickey to control each team's assets and move players between them as necessary.

Up until then, the Cardinals had been unable to compete against higher-spending teams (think small-market teams vs. the Yankees today), so Rickey set out to "grow" his own players.

He made his own agreements with the teams he operated, giving them operating money and other stabilizing amenities (when minor league teams failed at a high rate) in exchange for the right to recall and return players.

Thus, the farm system and the optioning of players was created. Today, it's such an integral part of the game that it's nearly impossible to imagine baseball without the minor leagues and the farm system networks operated by every team.

Spring Training

Rickey was not the first person to put his club through its paces in the spring before the regular season commenced. "Cap" Anson gets the credit for that innovation (and we'll talk about him in another posting).

Rickey, however, gets the credit for revolutionizing spring training.

Rickey was now with the Brooklyn Dodgers and working in a post-World War II America.  He bought an old military base in Vero Beach, Fl that we now know as Dodgertown (recently abandoned by the Dodgers).

Rickey now had a place for his team to train before the season, away from the blustery weather of Brooklyn and the rest of the northeast.

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But his innovations didn't end there.

He also developed training techniques for his teams. These included sand pits for practicing slides, batting cages, pitching contraptions that tested a player's ability to throw strikes, and then-cutting edge calisthenics and exercise routines that made sure his players were in shape.

Today, spring training, like the farm system, is integral and impossible to do without.

New techniques are tested constantly, with spring training serving as both preparation and a laboratory for teams readying for a long season. All 30 of the major league teams train in the south, almost equally split between Florida and Arizona.


Rickey is best known for signing a young black man named Jackie Robinson to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s.

At that time, no confirmed African American had played in the major leagues since the late 1880s, when Moses Fleetwood Walker, his brother Wellday, and Bud Fowler were run out of the game by men like Anson and the situation of American society as a whole.

As the story goes, Rickey had always wanted to integrate baseball. He had experienced racism in its most virulent form around the turn of the century, when while coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, his lone black player was denied entry to a hotel in South Bend, Ind.

Rickey is said to have been haunted by the memory of the player clawing at his own skin trying to tear it off.

Rickey was a virtuous man, so this story is probably true, but it's equally likely that he was also influenced by a desire to win and make money, both of which he knew he could do with black players, who were noted as being as talented, if not more so, than the white men already playing the nation's game.

So he settled on Robinson, whom he tested to make sure he could stand up to the punishment he would face. Robinson did not fail him, and Rickey took credit for making baseball a truly national institution.

Branch Rickey was neither the father of baseball, nor was he its only great innovator. But he was and is baseball's chief innovator, having made three vastly important marks on the game which today are as important as the original innovations of the 1840s.

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