Drivers on Route 23 north of Columbus may be surprised to learn the highway is named after a University of Michigan graduate.

But Wesley Branch Rickey was much more than a Wolverine. The native of southern Ohio played and coached baseball at Ohio Wesleyan University before reaching the big leagues as a catcher.

It was his work after his playing days were over that cemented Rickey’s legacy as the “Great Emancipator of baseball.” As general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract.

Ohio played a pivotal role in the history of baseball integration. 

That Rickey’s namesake highway in Delaware County is a congested, but ever-expanding road to and from the state capital seems almost fitting.

“Problems,” he once said, “are the price you pay for progress.”

Ohio beginnings

Rickey was born in 1881 in a rural area of Scioto County known as Duck Run, which would later be the home of entertainer Roy Rogers and politician Ted Strickland.

Decades before Robinson took the field for Brooklyn, Rickey witnessed the pains of segregation first-hand as a young coach of the OWU Bishops baseball team. 

The Bishops were an integrated team, with a Black ballplayer from Zanesville named Charles Thomas on the roster. When the Bishops traveled to South Bend, Indiana, Thomas was barred from staying at the team hotel.

Rickey was able to convince the owner to let Thomas stay. The coach later found an inconsolable Thomas sobbing in his hotel room, rubbing his skin and bemoaning the color that evoked such prejudice.

The agonizing scene stuck with Rickey for the rest of his life. 

“I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas,” he was later quoted as saying.

Rickey would go on to play three forgettable seasons in the Major Leagues for St. Louis and New York before retiring as a player.  

After studying law at the University of Michigan, he began an illustrious career as a baseball executive. 

‘Baseball’s da Vinci’

It is Rickey’s genius which led to teams like the Columbus Clippers and Akron RubberDucks serving as minor league affiliates to the MLB team in Cleveland.

As general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals a century ago, he helped to purchase a number of independent minor league squads to serve as feeder teams known as the “farm system.” 

“The Great Rotarian, as some called him, built a system for recruiting and training hundreds of youngsters to be ballplayers,” author Michael D’Antonio wrote in the book “Forever Blue.” “Rickey pushed his program like an evangelist rounding up souls. Some of those who bought into it behaved like religious converts, even calling themselves ‘Rickey men.’”

The investments paid off. The Cardinals won four World Series championships under his leadership. Before long, other teams copied this farm system idea. There are now hundreds of minor league affiliates to every team MLB teams.

New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey later called Rickey “baseball’s da Vinci.”

“He became the very American face and voice of the game’s eternal duality — rural vs. urban, crass vs. pious, corporal vs. mental,” Vecsey wrote.

Indeed, Rickey was born in a rural countryside, but is most famous for his work in major cities like St. Louis and Brooklyn. He was a Bible-quoting teetotaler who managed teams full of hard-nosed gamblers.

The man who once made headlines campaigning for the temperance movement did not live long enough to see his Cardinals move into a stadium named for the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.

Early in his professional career, Rickey promised his mother he would never work or play baseball on Sundays as a lifelong pledge to honor the Sabbath. (That didn’t prevent him from renting a room in the YMCA across from the Cardinals’ stadium and watching the ticket lines through his binoculars.)

Rickey’s acute sense of history and justice was apparent from his first day as president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Settling into his new office, he replaced a moose on the wall with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Ending the color barrier

Integration had been tried numerous times before Rickey took over the Dodgers. 

In fact, Jackie Robinson is not the first Black man to play in the major leagues. That distinction belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker, an Ohioan who appeared in a few dozen games with the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.

In the decades that followed, baseball owners adhered to an unofficial “color barrier” restricting Black players from joining the league. The first MLB commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, maintained this unwritten rule through the 1920s and ’30s. 

Among those who tested this barrier was Bill Veeck Jr., who would go on to great fame leading the Cleveland Indians and other teams. Major League rosters were depleted during the height of World War II such that one-armed outfielder Pete Gray saw action in 1945.

Gray was welcome, but Black players weren’t. Veeck wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the team with stars from the Negro Leagues. His plan was not well received and he was denied the chance to buy the team.

Landis died in 1944. His successor, Happy Chandler, was a Kentucky native and U.S. Senator who once starred for the Transylvania University baseball, basketball and football teams.

An incident in 1920 may have impacted Chandler’s perspective on race relations as the Charles Thomas moment did for Rickey.

Chandler’s football team traveled to Athens that fall for a game against Ohio University, which had an integrated squad. Transylvania coach Jim Park demanded that OU’s Black players be sidelined. 

When the Bobcats refused, Park called off the game.

(In an interesting twist, Park was a former MLB pitcher who made his debut for a 1915 team coached by none other than Branch Rickey. Years later, Park campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky and had he been elected would have served alongside Sen. Chandler.)

Chandler was elected as commissioner in an owners’ vote taken in Cleveland. With Landis gone, Rickey felt emboldened to sign Robinson to a minor league contract.

Robinson was called up to the Dodgers a year later in 1947 with Chandler’s support, thus ending the color barrier.

“Rickey was unquestionably the greatest non-playing figure baseball ever knew,” baseball authors Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf once wrote.

Rickey’s legacy

Rickey would go on to hold several other baseball jobs before collapsing while giving a speech at a Missouri banquet held in his honor. He died a month later in December 1965.

Wrote George Vecsey, “In essence, baseball’s great teacher went out talking.”

Rickey had been serving as a trustee for Ohio Wesleyan University and was the national chairman of OWU’s capital campaign.

The university has since honored his legacy by naming the campus sports facility after him and establishing the Branch Rickey Scholarship, which is awarded to all students with a qualifying grade point average.

Ohio lawmakers have since honored Rickey by dedicating two stretches of Route 23 in his memory. There is Branch Rickey Memorial Highway in Delaware County near the campus of OWU as well as in Scioto County near his birthplace of Duck Run.

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.