Branch Rickey, who built a baseball legacy by taking risks and defying convention, was true to self in the last major decision of his life.
Faced with the choice of staying in a hospital bed or spending an evening with admirers, Rickey opted to travel from St. Louis to Columbia for his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
“He preferred to be among the living that night than lying dying in a hospital,” Rickey’s daughter, Mary, told her father’s biographer, Murray Polner.
On Dec. 9, 1965, Rickey, 83, died in a Columbia hospital, 26 days after he had collapsed and lost consciousness while delivering his induction speech at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame banquet.
After serving as manager and executive with the Browns, Rickey moved to the crosstown Cardinals as team president in 1917, beginning a long and successful career with the National League club.
In August 1918, with World War I raging, Rickey joined the U.S. Army chemical corps, was commissioned a major and was assigned to France, where he instructed American soldiers about mustard gas. After the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, Rickey returned to the Cardinals.
With the franchise experiencing financial hardships, Rickey took on the additional role of manager in order to keep down the payroll.
Realizing the Cardinals needed better players and knowing the club was reluctant to get into bidding wars for prospects, Rickey developed the first farm system, stocking the Cardinals with a steady supply of prime talent.
“In 1919, no one had heard of a farm system _ except Rickey,” The Sporting News wrote. “He devised it as a way for the then impoverished Cardinals to combat richer rivals for talent.”
Said Rickey: “Starting the Cardinals farm system was no sudden stroke of genius. It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. We lived a precarious existence. Other clubs would outbid us.”
Rickey was both manager and top baseball executive of the Cardinals from 1919 until May 1925 when team owner Sam Breadon took away the manager role from him and appointed second baseman Rogers Hornsby as player-manager.
Though being ousted as manager “hurt him deeply,” according to biographer Polner, Rickey and the Cardinals excelled when he was focused fulltime on the front office. With Rickey’s administrative leadership and baseball acumen, the Cardinals became a premier franchise, winning six NL pennants and four World Series titles from 1926-42.
“Considering the little money Rickey had to work with in his early years in St. Louis, he was the game’s most successful team builder,” wrote Frederick G. Lieb in The Sporting News.
After the 1942 season, Rickey left the Cardinals to take over as chief baseball executive of the Dodgers. Five years later, he integrated the major leagues by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and successfully guiding him to a Hall of Fame playing career.
Rickey ended his baseball career in 1964 after an ill-fated two-year stint as a senior consultant with the Cardinals. He retired and resided in a suburb of St. Louis.
In his 1982 book “Branch Rickey: A Biography,” Polner said Rickey suffered a sixth heart attack in November 1965 and was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis.
Rickey spent two weeks in the hospital and was suffering from a high fever, The Sporting News reported. He had been running a temperature of up to 105 degrees, according to the Associated Press.
Nonetheless, Rickey went against his doctor’s orders and his family’s wishes and insisted on attending the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 13, 1965.
On the morning of the ceremony, Rickey was driven the 125 miles from St. Louis to Columbia, site of the University of Missouri.
He attended a luncheon and then a football game between Oklahoma and Missouri, The Sporting News reported.
It was a “bleak and cold” afternoon and Rickey watched the game from the stands with his wife, Jane, while “huddled under a blanket, uncomfortable and in apparent distress,” according to Polner.
Afterward, Rickey went to his room at the Mark Twain Hotel and rested. That evening, he and Jane were driven to the Daniel Boone Hotel for the induction banquet. Also being inducted were George Sisler, who had played first base for Rickey at the University of Michigan and with the Browns, and the late J.G. Taylor Spink, formerly publisher of The Sporting News.
Asked to speak, Rickey talked for about 15 minutes at the dais. He was about to launch into an anecdote when he paused and said, “I don’t believe I can continue.”
Those were his last words. He collapsed into a chair and slipped to the floor. A physician rushed to his aid. Rickey was unconscious.
He was carried to a fire department across the street and taken from there by ambulance to Boone County Memorial Hospital, according to Polner.
Rickey remained in a coma until he died at the hospital nearly a month later and 11 days before his 84th birthday.
In the lead to his obituary, the Associated Press called Rickey “a front-office genius who remade baseball over a span of 50 years.”
Wrote The Sporting News: “His achievements as an empire builder who invented the farm system and broke baseball’s color line rank him with the most important figures in the history of the game.”
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