Friday, April 14, 2017

A Wesleyan Yearbook with Branch Rickey and Charles Thomas - Where Baseball Integration First Entered Rickey's Mind

The yearbook you see above doesn't look like much, but it holds within it an important story relevant to this weekends Jackie Robinson Day. Featured above is a 1905 “Le Bijou” Ohio Wesleyan University yearbook -- the school where Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey first got the idea that Baseball should not have a color line. (auction link) Best yet, there is an fantastic team photo of the schools Baseball team that includes Rickey and a certain fellow who is the main subject of this story -- an African-American ballplayer named Charles Thomas.

Below is the team photo from the yearbook. Charles Thomas is standing in the middle, and Branch Rickey is the gentleman on the right in the suit.

At this time Rickey was the teams youthful manager, and as a result saw first-hand the racism ballplayers like Thomas faced. Here is one of those instances that clearly shaped his world view. Per a post I put up nearly a decade ago:
During a trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame, Branch Rickey was told by the clerk at the Oliver Hotel that the team was welcome except for Charlie Thomas. Rickey would not hear of it and insisted that Thomas be allowed to stay in Rickey's room as an unregistered guest. After threatening to take the entire team elsewhere, Rickey convinced the manager and sent for a cot. Recalling the events that immediately followed, Rickey described how "Tommy stood in the corner, tense and brooding and in silence. I asked him to sit in a chair and relax. Instead, he sat on the end of the cot, his huge shoulders hunched and his large hands clasped between his knees. I tried to talk to the captain, but I couldn't take my gaze from Tommy. Tears welled, ...spilled down his black face and splashed to the floor. Then his shoulders heaved convulsively and he rubbed one great hand over the other with all the power of his body, muttering, 'Black skin, if I could only make 'em white'. He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction...."
In referring to the episode in South Bend, Rickey later explained, "...whatever mark that incident left on the black was no more indelible than the impressions made on me..."
As you know it took over 40 years for it to be possible for him to make the change that would effect the entire country. And we are clearly better off for it.

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