In a move that shifted the balance of baseball power in St. Louis, Branch Rickey left the American League Browns and joined the National League Cardinals.
One hundred years ago, on March 20, 1917, Rickey, the Browns’ business manager, became president of the Cardinals.
Rickey’s departure was fought by Browns owner Phil Ball, even though the two men didn’t get along.
At the time, the Browns were the dominant baseball franchise in St. Louis.
Under Rickey, the Cardinals eventually would transform from a lackluster franchise into an elite one.
Meet the new boss
In 1915, Rickey served the dual roles of Browns manager and assistant to team owner Robert Hedges. Rickey performed many of the duties of a general manager.
After the 1915 season, Hedges sold the Browns to Phil Ball. One of Ball’s first moves was to hire Fielder Jones, former White Sox manager, to be manager of the Browns and reassign Rickey to the position of business manager.
In his 1982 book “Branch Rickey: A Biography,” author Murray Polner wrote that Rickey and Ball “took an instant dislike to one another.”
“Ball thought Rickey’s ideas too radical and Rickey’s endless talk and large vocabulary made him uncomfortable,” Polner wrote. “Rickey was, in turn, uncomfortable with Ball’s crudeness. He considered Ball uncouth and, in matters of baseball, virtually illiterate.”
According to Rickey, Ball agreed to honor Rickey’s contract, but told him he wouldn’t stand in his way if Rickey wanted to leave.
The 1916 Browns were competitive. They entered September four games out of first place and finished with a 79-75 record.
The 1916 Cardinals were a mess. They finished in last place at 60-93. Ownership was strapped for cash and had trouble paying bills.
On March 5, 1917, Cardinals owner Helene Britton sold the club for $375,000 to a consortium of investors led by former team president James C. Jones.
Jones and the investors polled a group of seven St. Louis journalists for their advice on who should be hired to run the baseball operations.
The response was unanimous: Rickey.
Jones offered Rickey a three-year contract at $15,000 per year to be Cardinals president, according to the St. Louis Star. Rickey, who was to be paid $7,500 as Browns business manager in 1917, went to Ball and asked to be released from his contract.
Rickey said he received absolute assurance from Ball on March 19, 1917, that he could negotiate for a job that would better his position, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
A day later, Rickey accepted the Cardinals’ offer and signed a contract with them, according to a Page 1 story in the Post-Dispatch.
Ball, though, was having second thoughts.
Ban Johnson, president of the American League, didn’t want Rickey going to a club in the rival league, Rickey said. Johnson pressured Ball to stop Rickey from joining the Cardinals.
Displaying a Browns contract Rickey had signed for 1917, Ball told the Post-Dispatch, “I will insist that he fulfill his agreement.”
“Rickey seems to be confused over certain promises I made to him when he signed this (Browns) contract,” Ball said. “I promised Rickey … I would also help him in bettering himself if any opportunity offered itself for him apart from baseball.
“I at no time had the notion that he would consider this offer applicable to any proposition he might receive from one of my competitors,” Ball said. “My idea was that should Rickey care to enter the law business in St. Louis I would give him every assistance that I could.”
Ball went to court and received a restraining order that prohibited Rickey from working for the Cardinals until a hearing could be held before a judge.
In the Post-Dispatch, columnist John Wray wrote, “The battle between Rickey and Ball … seems a useless waste of time and money in which the only persons to come out of the conflict with all the honors _ and considerable cash _ will be the attorneys.”
The St. Louis Star opined: “Squeamish people who have doubted that Rickey will be allowed to preside over the Cardinals on account of a prior contract with the Browns are now inclined to view the position of Rickey as one that will impregnably withstand legal assault.”
Let’s make a deal
On April 6, 1917, the day a hearing was to be held, a settlement was reached that allowed Rickey to join the Cardinals.
“Rickey agreed to the terms of the settlement only after much persuasion,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “He and his personal attorney, George Williams, were very eager to bring the case to trial, but they were persuaded in the end, for the good of baseball, to accept the settlement out of court as proposed by Ball’s lawyers.”
Though the Cardinals under Rickey improved significantly in 1917 _ they finished in third place at 82-70 _ it wasn’t until Sam Breadon became principal owner in 1920 that the franchise had the backing it needed to solidify and blossom.
Supported by Breadon, Rickey built professional baseball’s first farm system, providing the Cardinals with a steady supply of talent trained under a shared organizational philosophy.
Rickey, who had returned to the field as Cardinals manager in 1919 while still running the administrative baseball operations, was put back in the front office by Breadon fulltime in May 1925 and the Cardinals won their first NL pennant and World Series championship the next year.
Previously: The story of Branch Rickey and his final journey