By Glen Sparks
Branch Rickey chomped on thick cigars and knew baseball better than anyone.
He studied players through intelligent eyes set just below bushy brows. He said things like “luck is the residue of design” and “leisure is the handmaiden of the Devil.” Rickey counted on a memory filled with hundreds of stories for just the right occasion. He quoted from only the best sources, often the Bible. Branch Rickey was a Methodist.
Born Dec. 20, 1881, in Stockdale, Ohio, Rickey played baseball and football at Ohio Wesleyan University. But, he didn’t play on Sundays. He did not so much as attend Sunday baseball games. Branch Rickey kept the Sabbath Day holy.
Rickey lasted just a few seasons in the majors. He batted .239 in 120 games as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees. Over his 343 career at-bats, he hit three home runs, all of them in 1906 for St. Louis. Due to a shoulder injury, he couldn’t throw much. The Washington Senators stole 13 bases off him on June 28, 1907.
He fought tuberculous for a few years, made a comeback and still couldn’t hit a curveball. He enrolled in law school at the University of Michigan and coached the Wolverines’ baseball team.
Rickey didn’t enjoy being a lawyer. But, he loved baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals hired him in 1919, shortly after his return from World War I. He had served in the 1st Gas Regiment and had seen the horrors of war. He wrote down scary words onto scrap paper—“shock” and “discolored skin.”
The Redbirds hired Rickey as a manager. That lasted six seasons and got him fired. The team only finished above .500 twice. Owner Sam Breadon had seen enough.
“You can’t do this to me, Sam,” Rickey pleaded. “You’re ruining me.”
“No,” Breadon responded. “I am doing the greatest favor one man has ever done for another.”
Rickey was no manager, Breadon suspected. The owner, though, knew that Rickey could spot talent and develop players.
General Manager Rickey put together the fabled Gas House Gang in St. Louis. Players like “Ducky” Medwick, “Pepper” Martin and “Dizzy” Dean. The team won six pennants and four World Series during Rickey’s tenure (1926-42).
Probably Rickey’s greatest innovation was the creation of a farm system. He put the team’s money into minor league clubs and relied on those clubs to replenish his Redbird rosters.
Tension increased between Breadon and Rickey even as the Cardinals turned into a powerhouse. Finally, Rickey had enough. The Brooklyn Dodgers hired him in the fall of 1942.
The Dodgers had just finished as runner-up in the National League and had won a pennant in 1941. What could possibly be wrong? Well, Rickey said, the roster was getting old. How many more good years did players like Dolph Camilli and Billy Herman have in them?
Rickey introduced the Boys of Summer. He combined players already in place (“Dixie” Walker and “Pee Wee” Reese) with guys like “Duke” Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges and Carl Erskine. He famously said that he could not meet his Creator and tell Him why a black man should be able to play baseball. That led to his signing of Jackie Robinson. Later, he signed Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Joe Black.
The Dodgers won pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953 under Rickey. But, they had never won a World Series. Not ever, not even before Rickey’s time. Would 1955 be different? The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees went into Game 5 tied at two games apiece.
Roger Craig began the 1955 season with the Montreal Royals of the International League. He went 10-2 with a 3.54 ERA, and Brooklyn called him up to the big club. The rest of the way, Craig pitched in 21 games for the Dodgers and started 10. He ended up going 5-3 with a 2.73 ERA. Walt Alston gave him the ball to start Game 5 against the Yankees at Ebbets Field.
Bob Grim, a Brooklyn guy from Lane High School, opposed Craig. A right-hander like Craig, he compiled a 7-5 record with a 4.19 ERA during the season.
The Dodgers hit Grim hard in Game 5. He pitched six innings and gave up four runs, including three long balls. Sandy Amoros, the Cuban-born outfielder, ripped a two-run home run in the bottom of the second inning. Duke Snider belted his third home run of the Series in the third.
Billy Martin knocked a run-scoring single in the top of the fourth off Craig. In the bottom of the fifth, though, Snider took Grim deep again to make the score 4-1 in favor of Brooklyn.
Bob Cerv’s homer in the seventh cut the Dodgers’ lead to 4-2, and Yogi Berra’s solo homer in the eighth off reliever Clem Labine made things interesting. The Dodgers finally put things away with a Jackie Robinson single that brought home Carl Furillo in the bottom half of the eighth.
Labine held the Yankees scoreless in the ninth. The Dodgers took a 3-2 Series lead. They were just one win away from their first-ever World Series championship. The Series, though, was moving back to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx. Could Brooklyn keep the momentum going, or were the Yankees primed for a comeback?
Time of the game: 2:40
Winning pitcher: Roger Craig
Losing pitcher: Bob Grim
Save: Clem Labine
Home runs: Sandy Amoros (Brooklyn)
Duke Snider 2 (Brooklyn)
Bob Cerv (New York)
Yogi Berra (New York)