The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 1)

In the autumn of 1950, Branch Rickey, the general manager and minority owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was nearing 70 years old. Decades earlier “The Mahatma” had essentially invented the now-taken-for-granted job of GM, and his performance in the role had been long and hugely successful.

Overseeing the operation of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 through 1942, Rickey had invented (there’s no “essentially” qualifier here; this is the one guy who conceived and designed) the modern farm system, and wielding its power he made the Cardinals a National League dynasty in the 1930s and ‘40s. Upon moving to Brooklyn in 1943, Rickey constructed a top-to-bottom system every bit the equal of the St. Louis powerhouse, and by the late 1940s the Dodgers were shouldering aside the Cards as the elite NL franchise.

And oh, yes, that one additional thing: With the Dodgers, Rickey had committed the enormously bold step of racially integrating his roster, and doing so with exquisite success on the field, in the clubhouse, and at the turnstile. With this action Rickey commanded a level of respect, not just for his baseball acumen but also for his broader and deeper wisdom, vision and courage, that scaled new heights.

In short, by 1950 Branch Rickey’s stature towered as high as any baseball executive’s ever has. It was at this moment that an assertive new majority Brooklyn owner named Walter O’Malley decided to squeeze Rickey out of the Dodgers operation.

Whether O’Malley’s choice was wise or not, we won’t pursue. What we will examine is what Rickey did in this circumstance, and how his performance within the ensuing five-year episode added to, and detracted from, his monumental career legacy.

The city of three rivers

By its nature, Pittsburgh was never likely to gain the status of a baseball dynasty. It was a major city, to be sure, but never threatening to be a metropolis. Greater markets such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, to name just a few, would always loom larger than this steel town. Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh Pirates had been a competitive franchise in the National League over most of the first half of the 20th century. They‘d captured six pennants and were consistently in the first division.

But in the late 1940s their fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. In the five seasons since the end of World War II, the Pirates had finished in fourth place once, sixth once and seventh twice, and in 1950 they’d come in dead last for the first time since 1917. And the immediate trend was alarming: From 1948 through 1950 the team’s win total had gone from 83 to 71 to 57.

Owner John Galbreath, a real-estate tycoon willing and able to invest lavishly in the ball club, wasn’t one to sit idly and allow the operation to wallow. (One of Galbreath’s minority partners in the Pirates was Bing Crosby; both owned thoroughbred race horses as well as the baseball team.)

Bringing Branch to the rivers

Over the summer of 1950, Galbreath became aware of Rickey’s growing disharmony with the Brooklyn ownership, and sent feelers in his direction: Might the old man be willing to take charge of the Pirates’ baseball operation? Rickey was an interesting option for Galbreath to consider. Yes, Rickey’s achievements and esteem within the game were unsurpassed, but he was elderly and in less-than-perfect health, and the Pirates weren’t exactly a quick-fix project. It was going to take years to build them into a contender, and no one would recognize that more clearly than Rickey himself.

Wouldn’t this be a sensible point in his life for Rickey to retire gracefully, to devote more time to the family he genuinely loved? To perhaps write a book or two, to go on the lecture circuit, to be celebrated as the sage he was, and generally spend his golden years basking in the glory of his marvelous career? Why would he voluntarily forego a plush retirement, and instead take on the more-than-full-time executive headaches involved in transforming a losing baseball organization into a winner, with absolutely no guarantee of success?

Sensible questions all. But Rickey hadn’t attained the status he held by always doing the sensible thing, and certainly not the easiest thing. Whatever else he was, Rickey was supremely egotistical in the best sense of the term, and incapable of allowing a challenge to pass him by. As John F. Kennedy would famously say, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The Pirates attracted Rickey precisely because they represented such a difficult test of his skill and his energy, and in this way they represented the best possible opportunity for Rickey to once again demonstrate to one and all his incomparable brilliance.

And so, in early November of 1950, the deed was done: Galbreath announced that he had signed Rickey to a five-year contract as vice president, general manager and limited partner of the Pittsburgh Pirates at an annual salary of $100,000, to be followed by an additional five-year term as special consultant at $50,000 per annum.

What he inherited: the big league roster

Though the Pirates had landed in the National League cellar in 1950, the Pittsburgh organization over which Rickey assumed control wasn’t in the hopeless state of, say, the St. Louis Browns of that period, or the Philadelphia Phillies of a decade earlier. After all, the Pirates had been a fourth-place team just two years earlier; though their won-lost record had rapidly deteriorated, their attendance was still quite strong (third-highest in the National League in 1950, at over 1.1 million), and the roster contained some serious assets.

The most valuable asset was unquestionably left fielder Ralph Kiner, who’d led the major leagues in home runs for four straight seasons. Kiner wasn’t a good defensive outfielder, and dazzled no one with speed on the bases, but his combination of tremendous power and outstanding strike zone discipline rendered him a legitimate superstar. And he’d just celebrated his 28th birthday in October of 1950, so there was every reason to suspect he had many highly productive years to come.

Infielder Danny O’Connell was quite familiar to Rickey, since it had been Rickey’s Brooklyn organization that sold the highly touted minor leaguer to Pittsburgh for $50,000 just a year earlier. The Pirates had promoted the 23-year-old O’Connell to the majors in July 1950, and he took over as their regular shortstop, hit .292 with some pop, and finished third in the league’s Rookie of the Year balloting.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Another exciting rookie was David “Gus” Bell, who would turn 22 that November. A product of the Pittsburgh system, Bell had arrived in the majors in late May, and immediately grabbed and held the Pirates’ starting right field job, hitting a solid .282 and placing second in the league in triples. He was big yet graceful, displaying all the tools of strength, speed, arm and defensive aptitude, with a batting stroke that was delivering line-drive contact already and promised to develop real power.

In the “solid pro” category, the roster featured 30-year-old power-hitting center fielder Wally Westlake, and two durable starting pitchers: southpaw Cliff Chambers, soon to turn 29 years old, and 34-year-old veteran right-hander Murry Dickson, with whom Rickey was familiar from his Cardinal days.

Nevertheless this ball club had indeed finished last in 1950; obviously the Pirates had plenty of weaknesses. Manager Billy Meyer had granted significant playing time that season to three rookies in addition to O’Connell and Bell (starting pitchers Bill MacDonald and Vernon Law, and first baseman Dale Coogan), and all three had taken rookie-typical lumps.

Moreover, in 1950 Meyer never was able to settle on a satisfactory regular at either second base or third, and the second-line pitching was a patchwork of has-beens and never-weres that seriously struggled. Indeed, run prevention was the ball club’s most glaring problem. The offense, paced obviously by Kiner, was slightly below league-average in 1950, but only one team in the league had a worse DER than Pittsburgh’s .701, and the staff ERA+ was a woeful 89, dead last.

A challenge of a different sort was also presented by the Pittsburgh roster: The Pirates in 1950 remained among the three-quarters of major league organizations that were whites-only. It would be up to Rickey to bring racially integrated baseball to the city of Pittsburgh.

What he inherited: the farm

Obviously the Pirates had a farm system in place; it had produced Kiner, Bell, MacDonald, Law and Coogan, among others. Pittsburgh fielded a total of 13 minor league teams in 1950, exactly the average total among the 16 franchises. The chain was quite a bit smaller than the powerhouses Rickey had builit in Brooklyn (22 minor league teams in 1950) or St. Louis (21), and smaller as well than such organizations as the New York Giants (18), the Cleveland Indians (16) and the New York Yankees (15). But it was larger than the most rudimentary systems as of 1950, such as the Cincinnati Reds (7), the Chicago White Sox (8) or the Washington Senators (10).

Yet quantity is only one metric of a farm system; the other is quality, and the system’s legacy was among the least robust in baseball. In both 1949 and 1950 it had placed seventh among the eight National League teams, and 14th among the 16 big league organizations, in aggregate talent production.

In addition to those young Pirates players who already had reached the majors as of 1950, the Pittsburgh organization included two prospects who eventually would emerge as big league stars: pitcher Bob Friend and outfielder Frank Thomas. But Rickey well knew that beefing up the Pirates’ capacity to scout, sign and develop young talent would likely be his primary challenge, the major key to success.

Next time

We’ll closely examine Rickey’s first year of work in Pittsburgh.

References & Resources
Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 489-501.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1950, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1950, p. 116.

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.

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