Friday, March 20, 2015

March 20, 1917: Branch Rickey Lands In The Cardinals Roost

     On March 20, 1917, the Cardinals hired Branch Rickey to run the franchise. Rickey had been a part of the St. Louis Browns front office, however, when the opportunity came to jump over to the Cardinals it was an opportunity that he would not pass up. The hiring of Rickey is perhaps the most monumental move that the club made during the early 1900's. He built a farm system that revolutionized baseball, and turned the National League club that called St. Louis home into a dynasty that had success stretch across decades.

     The hiring of Rickey came after the team was sold by Helene Britton earlier in the month to James C. Jones, who had worked as Mrs. Britton's lawyer. She had been advised to sell the team because she did not have the financial means to turn them into a contender. World War I, as well as, competition from the Federal League helped force Britton's hand. The Cardinals skipper Miller Huggins also attempted to buy the club. However, Jones and future majority owner Sam Breadon moved fast to insure the team would not be moved out of the city.

    The investment group paid $375,000 for the team, which would be nearly $7 million today. He rounded up 1200 investors in a rather extraordinary way by allowing them to purchase shares for $25 apiece, with a maximum of $10,000 invested. He added an incentive for stockholders, which was the right to give a season pass to underprivileged youths in the city. That was how the knothole gang was born, and it turned many children into fans of the Cardinals for the rest of their lives.

     Jones was not a baseball man, so that led him to asking civic leaders, as well as some local sportswriters who he should hire to run the club. The name that stood above the rest was Branch Rickey. He had played for the Browns and the Yankees from 1905 to 1907. After a bout of tuberculosis knocked him down in 1908, Rickey went onto obtain a degree in law, before returning to St. Louis as an assistant for the Browns in 1912. In 1913, Rickey took over as the Browns manager, and helped the club improve in 1914 by using statistical analysis, as well as forming relationships with his players. The team ended up taking a step back in 1915, which led to him relinquishing his duties as field manager to Fielder Jones. The Browns' new skipper was brought in by the club's new owner Phil Ball, which spelled the beginning of the end Rickey's time with the Browns organization.

     When the Cardinals were sold in 1917, Rickey found a new opportunity. Although, he had just been extended by Ball. The Cardinals making a play for him led to a short legal dispute, which was solved with some dollars passing hands before Rickey could move his things into a new office. Once those dollars passed hands a new era began in Cardinal Nation.

     Rickey did part ways with the club, and headed for Brooklyn in 1942, but even then the groundwork he had laid continued for several more years, which can be seen with those flags that have the numbers 1944 and 1946 on them waving in the wind at the ballpark. During his lengthy tenure Rickey helped bring the Cardinals nine National League Pennants, and six World Championships that came between 1926 and 1946. He did return to the offices of the Cardinals as a senior consultant in 1964. While the Cardinals did go onto win their first championship since 1946 that season he was let go at year's end. A little over a year later Branch Rickey passed away at the age of 83. The man who may be best known for helping break through the color barrier by bringing in Jackie Robinson to play in Brooklyn, is also a man who should forever be remembered in Cardinal Nation. In my humble opinion the "Cardinal Way" started with Branch Rickey.

(The newspaper article in the picture above appeared in the St. Joseph Gazette the following day)

If you would like to read more about the life and times of Branch Rickey check out his SABR bio here:


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