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Did Branch Rickey Sell Out Jackie Robinson?

Illustration for article titled Did Branch Rickey Sell Out Jackie Robinson?

Today Major League Baseball will do what it does best and celebrate its history. Today is Jackie Robinson Day and he will be rightfully honored in ballparks across the country. It is perhaps the quintessential baseball celebration: fond, sepia-toned remembrances that obscure reality. Some memories, however, are getting a touch-up over on the MLB Blogs Network, by John Thorn.


Twenty-five years ago, Thorn unearthed photographs of a younger Jackie Robinson in a Royals jersey, sending him digging. His findings would later be published in Sport in 1988. What he discovered could generously be described as a Branch Rickey media manipulation scheme. Rickey operated in secret and sent various mixed signals, misinformation and straight up lies to cover his plan to be the Man Who Ended Segregation In Baseball. He evidently went so far as to create a dummy team—the creatively called Brooklyn Brown Dodgers—in a new negro league, the sole purpose of which was to serve as a smokescreen for scouting black baseball players. Rickey would be able to say his guys were looking for talent for the Brown Dodgers when in reality, they were scouting black athletes for the blue Dodgers.

Rickey, wanting to preserve the soon-to-be-announced desegregation of the national pastime, hired a writer to craft the message for Look magazine. Arthur Mann wrote a story detailing the signing of not only Jackie Robinson, but several other black players who were supposed be Robinson's teammates. Jackie Robinson was never supposed to go it alone.

Mann makes it clear that Rickey had never planned for one black man to deal with all the problems alone; he had meant to announce the simultaneous signing of several others. Don Newcombe and Sam Jethroe were supposed to have been Robinson's teammates at Montreal, and Roy Partlow, John Wright, and Roy Campanella were to have been assigned to another farm club.


Thorn figures the pictures that started his search were meant to accompany the propaganda. Mann's story, however, was never published. Rickey got cold feet.

...during the 1945 World Series Rickey wrote Mann and told him not to go through with publication of the article. "There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated." What he meant was that the integration of baseball was becoming a divisive and public issue in New York City politics, and Rickey no longer had time to execute his master plan. In order to deter the Communist Party or Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from taking the credit for pushing baseball to integrate, after all Rickey's years of work behind the scenes, he had to rush the signing of Robinson, and Robinson alone.

That sure sounds like Branch Rickey sold Jackie Robinson out. Rather than get scooped in the annals of history as the Man Who Ended Segregation In Baseball and give Robinson a few extra shoulders to carry the load, he scrapped his "master plan," as Thorn puts it, and thrust Robinson in the spotlight—alone. Rickey comes off so obsessed with ending baseball's backward Jim Crow attitude—and more importantly, getting credit for it, that he likely had no problem exploiting the man who would soon become a symbol for racial equality.

Jackie Robinson Day [MLB]
Jackie Robinson's Signing: The Real Story [MLB]

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