Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, Branch Rickey + Capitalism

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson
1919 - 1972

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, baseball's famed #42, was the first African -
American to play major league baseball.  His middle name was inspired by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt who had died just 25 days before Jackie's birth.  TR, by the way, had broken racial barriers himself as the first American President to host an African-American guest at a White House dinner.  During the Second World War Jackie was drafted and went to OCS, becoming a 2nd lieutenant in the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion.  Jackie Robinson was a Republican for most of his life and actively supported Richard Nixon in his 1960 bid for the White House.  Given his wartime service, his middle name, and his fiery temper the liberal historian Evan Thomas would, presumably, describe Jackie Robinson as a "War Lover" (see!  Robinson, of course, was no "War Lover," but he was a fierce baseball competitor.

USS West Virginia, Pearl Harbor
Many African-Americans had distinguished themselves fighting for their country in World War II. On December 7, 1941 Doris, "Dorie," Miller, a naval cook and boxer, won the Navy Cross for his heroism in manning a .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun and dragging his mortally-wounded captain to safety aboard the USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ( The Red Tail P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee airmen had escorted Allied bombing raids over Germany (see...

In spite of segregation, Black Americans served in World War II in all branches of the U.S. Military with distinction.  Moreover, all American forces were engaged in a struggle against the most blatant and violent racist ideology in human history -- National Socialism.  The world had fought a war and the world would never be the same again.

Branch Rickey
1881 - 1965
It was Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that gave Robinson his big break integrating major league baseball.  Why did he do so?  The answer is simply that Rickey, like Robinson, was a fiercely competitive baseball guy.  Like any baseball guy, he wanted to win games, make the playoffs and sell more Dodger tickets.

On being presented with the opportunity to play in the Bigs, Robinson famously asked Branch Ricky,"Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Rickey answered that he needed a Negro player "with guts enough not to fight back."

Institutionalized racism is immoral, but, even more, it is inefficient.  Does it make architectural or economic sense to build multiple restrooms in public places due to race, as occurred in the segregated south?  "Economic historians estimate slave productivity at half of that of free men performing the same work."*  (Source: The Birth of Plenty, William J. Bernstein, 2004  Racism is bad business all around.  Shrewd business judgement and morality, on the other hand, are highly compatible.

Robert Weintraub writes, "Signing black players was a gaping market inefficiency waiting to be exploited.  Between the huge number of new fans -- of both colors -- and the projected boost from playing more meaningful late-season games, there was a clear profit motive pushing Rickey to sign a black ballplayer.  In this case the revolution could be monetized, though that hardly detracts from the courage it took to be the first one of that particular foxhole.

Rickey made his feelings clear to Harold Parrot, telling him, 'Son, the greatest untapped resource in the history of our game is the black race.  The Negro will make us winners for years to come.  And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart, and a do-gooder, and all that humanitarian rot."**  (The Victory Season, Robert Weintraub, 2013,

Rickey was alone among his baseball contemporaries in recognizing the growing power of African-American consumers.  He calculated correctly that far more black baseball fans would come to see Robinson play than white racists would boycott the games.

"Branch Rickey" sounds like a name for a cocktail, though the man was, in fact, a teetotaler.

Rickey was also right about Robinson's playing abilities.  Robinson, over the course of 10 seasons, played in 6 World Series.  He was an All-star in six consecutive seasons and was inducted into baseball's hall of fame in 1962.  Every spring major league players now celebrate "Jackie Robinson Day," all donning the fabled #42 jersey.

The recently released film, 42, emphasizes Rickey's Methodist roots and downplays his business acumen.  It was worthwhile reminder of the tremendous obstacles that Robinson faced with astonishing grace, though a bit sentimental.  The film barely touches on Robinson's military service and completely ignores his Teddy Roosevelt connection, his Republican politics and his successful post-baseball career in business; Robinson was a broadcaster with ABC and a banker.

Commander Kelly concludes, "Neither the Hollywood left nor the Occupy Wall street crowd is likely to remind us that sound business judgement AND a moral imperative launched the heroic career of Jackie Robinson.  It is true nonetheless."

* We Americans view slavery through a racial prism due to our history.  In fact, ALL races have been subjected to slavery at various times.  In spite of the song Rule Britannia, even Britons, for example, were slaves during the Roman Occupation.

** Please note that you will not find this quote in the recently released movie 42 that featured Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey.

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William Bernstein said...

The economic costs of bigotry are high; societies that write off half their human capital (women) are doomed, and so are people who believe that the world is 6,000 years old.


Anonymous said...

Yet another succinct and interesting history lesson. Thank you, Commander Kelly!

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris for highlighting Jackie Robinson's story. Little known fact that Mariano Rivera, the famed Yankees closer, is the ONLY player in baseball to still wear the #42.

In 1997, the Commissioner retired the #42 universally across baseball. He allowed the 13 remaining players that wore the number to be 'grandfathered' in. All players have since retired, except for Rivera.

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