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Sports Heroes Who Served: WWI Soldier Helped Desegregate Baseball

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Almost every sporting event in the United States has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help fill the void, this series looks at sports heroes who also served in the military.

Branch Rickey was an Army officer in the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. In his unit, coincidentally, were future baseball greats Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. Rickey would also take a place in baseball history, thanks to his decision to do the right thing.

Man poses for a photo.
Branch Rickey
Branch Rickey as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1941.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 410626-O-ZZ999-001

In October 1945, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey signed infielder Jackie Robinson, an African American, for the Dodgers' minor league organization. Robinson's later success with the Dodgers from 1947 to 1956 led other owners to seek Black talent.

This was before the U.S. military integrated, which happened July 26, 1948, after President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, committing the government to integrating the then-segregated military.

Man ready to hit baseball
Batter Up
Branch Rickey at the plate in 1906 for the American League’s St. Louis Browns.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 060626-O-ZZ999-001

At the time, no statute barred Blacks from playing professional baseball. However, it was an unwritten rule among club owners that they were not welcome.

Rickey was said to have appreciated the service and sacrifices African Americans made during World War I and II, and he was eager to enlist their services in baseball.

Man poses for photo
Branch Rickey
Portrait of Branch Rickey as the manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1913.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 120626-O-ZZ999-001

He also remembered a Black player from the baseball team he coached at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1903 and 1904 who was denied hotel accommodations. The incident was said to have made him furious, and he personally intervened to let the player spend the night there.

Rickey later said: ''I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.'' Then there was the business-practical element. The Negro leagues had a lot of talent, and this didn't go unnoticed by Rickey.

Baseball great Jackie Robinson poses for a photo.
Jackie Robinson
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson in 1950.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 500626-O-ZZ999-001

Incidentally, Rickey and Robinson were brothers — that is, brothers in arms. Robinson served in the Army during World War II.

Among Rickey's many accomplishments and milestones:

  •  In 1902, he played professional football for the Shelby Blues of the Ohio League, which later became known as the National Football League.
  •  In 1904 and 1905, he stayed busy at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, coaching baseball, basketball and football, as well as teaching English literature and history.
  •  He played in the major leagues in 1905 and 1906 with the St. Louis Browns.
  •  He was manager and general manager of the St. Louis Browns from 1913 to 1915 and in 1919.
  •  He helped to devise the farm system of training ballplayers in 1919.
  •  He was manager and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1942 and helped to create the team’s logo, which is still in use today.
  •  He was general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers 1943 to 1950 and of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1950 to 1955.
  •  His teams won World Series championships in 1926, 1931, 1934 and 1942 and National League pennants in 1928, 1930, 1947 and 1949

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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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