Baseball is known for having family names that span generations through MLB’s front offices: MacPhail, Bavasi, O’Malley and, yes, Rickey.
The name “Rickey” evokes a strong place in baseball history with Branch Rickey Jr.’s signing of Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier, as well as the same man’s introduction and development of the farm system.
Baseball as a family business was passed down to Rickey’s son, Branch, Jr. Branch Jr. was the Dodgers‘ farm director in 1947 and the assistant general manager until the end of the 1950 season, and, with the help of his father, rebuilt the Pirates organization in the ’60s and ’70s.
Today, that legacy continues with Branch Jr.’s son, Branch Rickey III. The grandson of Branch Rickey Sr. has been involved with professional baseball since the age of 15, working in player development with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, as a scout, as an Assistant Scouting Director during the ’70s, and in the ’80s as Director of Player Development. Along the way he spent time in the Peace Corps, an experience that shaped his life.
Rickey III has been the President of the Pacific Coast League since 1997, when the American Association was disbanded during a realignment by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues from three Triple-A leagues to two (the Pacific Coast League and the International League). He has championed making baseball more family-friendly, has brought in owners such as Nolan Ryan, and has pushed to get facilities updated in nearly every market.
The following Q&A covers a variety of topics: his earliest baseball memories, his time as Business Manager of Kingsport Pirates of the Appalachian League, his time in the Peace Corps, the successes and challenges during his tenure as Pacific Coast League president; the plans for the future for the PCL, and more.
Maury Brown for Baseball Prospectus: I’m sure given your family history that baseball has always been part of your life. You grew up on rural farmland on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, just a pasture away from your grandfather. What is your earliest childhood memory of baseball? And did you have an understanding of your grandfather’s place in history at an early age?
Branch Rickey III: I went to my first game at Ebbets Field in 1949. Our seats were behind the Dodgers dugout, about 10 rows back. My mother and two sisters were with me. As we got to our seats I turned around and saw George “Gabby” Hayes, who at the time was a Hollywood legend because he was the Lone Ranger’s right-hand man. So in my very first game at Ebbets Field, there was this Hollywood celebrity sitting at my elbow. I was so mesmerized by this cowboy sitting next to me that I don’t know if I saw any of the game.
My earliest memories are so much about just being a kid and constantly having baseball around me. I went to San Bernardino in 1952, where the Pirates–of all teams–trained. The very first thing I saw when I got there was a guy running out with a wheelbarrow full of bats, and he told me to hop on and took me to the batting cages where all the Major League players were. One of the early pictures of me captured exactly this scene.
My father and grandfather did not like having kids around clubhouses, running around and feeling entitled, so we weren’t really around the Major League players on a casual basis. Our appreciation of what was going on was from going to the games and hearing the stories, from overhearing the late-night phone calls between my father, grandfather, coaches and managers concerning whatever baseball situation that came up.
BP: You began your professional career with the Pirates in 1963 at the age of 17 as the Business Manager of the Kingsport Pirates of the Appalachian League. What did the job entail and what did you learn in that first job?
Rickey: I had actually started two years earlier. My father passed away in 1961. He had been the farm director of the Pirates, and the Pirates won the World Series in 1960. My father died of diabetes in April of the following year. In the summer of 1961, somebody from the Pirates called me and said they wanted me to be an office boy when school was out, and that’s when I really started my career–going and picking up the mail early in the morning, taking it to the office, getting coffee, running errands. I was a catcher on my high-school team, so if they were rehabbing players, sometimes I’d even go down during lunchtime and warm up pitchers in the bullpen at Forbes Field. So that was when I got started.
Ten days before I was to graduate from high school, I got a call from the Pirates’ GM. The business manager of the Kingsport Pirates had quit right before the season started, so they asked me to drive down to Kingsport, Tennessee and be the business manager there for the summer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, because all the players were older than I was. What I remember is that no day was ever long enough. You had to close up the stadium after the ballgame, you had to get the money for the players to go out on the road, you were responsible for collecting fines. You are your own secretary, so I would be there, sitting in a small office with no windows, staying up typing until two or three in the morning. You had to hire the ticket takers, supervise the groundskeepers, make sure all the bills are paid. It was the most unbelievable conspiracy of distractions all happening in a five-hour period. Tears would run down your face. It was baptism by fire.
BP: Beyond baseball, after you graduated from college you were very active in the Peace Corps in Venezuela. Why did you choose to go into the Peace Corps, and how did that experience shape you as an adult?
Rickey: I went for some very naïve and altruistic reasons. It was the most wonderful miscalculation I’ve ever made. After I spent a brief period in the North, they had positions next to the Amazon, which was pretty remote. There were no other American volunteers there, and in fact, nobody else even spoke English. So I went down there, and there was quite a bit of cultural gap between what I had grown up in and what I was encountering down there, especially the severity of life. It was hard, but I gained great insight into myself, and I was able to better understand my thoughts and approaches, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and how I wanted to live. I never realized that going back into baseball, I’d be bringing back with me this wonderful experience and an appreciation for Latin American culture. When I later became the farm director, it allowed me to interface with the Spanish-speaking players and the English-speaking players on an equal footing.
BP: You spent more than 20 years in MLB, in player development with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, as a scout, as an Assistant Scouting Director and as a Director of Player Development. Who were some of the players you scouted and who out of that group was really the best?
Rickey: Well, one of the players we drafted was a kid named Barry Bonds, and Barry had a wonderful world of talent. We were really blessed with so much physical talent. We had players in Triple-A, like Tony Pena–who was 19 years old–and it was just a plethora of extraordinary physical ability. I had a wonderful experience one time, when we drafted a boy at the very end of the draft. We didn’t think he had the professional ability, but we realized that by drafting him we’d draw some attention to him and help him along. His father was a former scout, and he wanted compensation for recommending an undrafted high-school graduate. My general manager and I agreed to give him some compensation if the player turned out to be signable. The player was a catcher, from New York, and his name was Bobby Bonilla. I called up our scouts in New Jersey and told them to run over and grab this kid. They worked him out in the playground, and the next day we agreed to sign him. It’s amazing the number of surprises you get.
Once a scout from Utica, New York asked me to run a tryout camp there, and a Canadian player had driven down all the way from Ottawa. He was a left-handed third baseman, and he went up to bat. A left-handed pitcher with an above-average major-league fastball was pitching to him, and this Canadian kid took the first pitch and hit it over the right-field fence by about 100 feet. His bat speed was second to none. We ended up giving him a very, very small bonus for signing out of the tryout camp. He ended up playing in the Major Leagues; his name was Doug Frobel. The boy who threw to him at the tryout camp was the number one draft pick the next year by the New York Yankees, Andy Madden (Author’s note: Madden was actually drafted by the Red Sox in 1977). His younger brother ended up as the number-one draft pick by the Boston Red Sox a few years later. There was also this catcher whom I worked out as a shortstop, and a couple of years later he also became a top draft pick–his name was Andy Van Slyke.
So here you have three future first-round draft picks and I signed the Canadian boy because he was the only one signable. Actually, as it turned out, Tom Browning was also at that Utica tryout camp. So sometimes it’s not the story of whom you sign, but whom you didn’t. How many people have ever held a tryout camp where you had three future number one draft picks and a kid who pitched a perfect game in the major leagues?
BP: Jumping forward, you were president of the American Association from 1991-97. When that league was dissolved, you were elected president of the Pacific Coast League and have been in that role ever since. What has been the biggest success during your tenure?
Rickey: Leadership, in anything you’re involved in, any enterprise, leadership is so, so, so critical. And I think as you measure major-league organizations one of the very first things you want to look at is who’s in charge of the decision-making, what kind of support do they get from… is ownership making the decisions?
So that’s the background by which I would say to you that as I had participated in the Pacific Coast League…and we’ve seen a metamorphosis from somewhat of a league that was evolving out of the older stadiums and needed to go through a stage of growth and renovations. Perhaps what I’m going to look back on with the greatest satisfaction is the caliber of people who have come into the league, that I’ve had some sense of helping to bring into the league, and the caliber of the operations personnel that are working for them.
I think there is a quality to the Pacific Coast League which is just top-notch, and I’m so proud that there is a level of entrepreneurship, a depth of resources among our ownership, and that’s not even to brag on the Warren Buffetts that we have, and the Nolan Ryans. I’m talking about the 16 clubs, and you look at the ownership groups, and you look at how the decision-making processes are made, and you look at the background that these people have, outside of baseball as well as inside of the game, and I’m going to look back on my time with the Pacific Coast League with a great deal of satisfaction, having had whatever role that I might have played in that transition and change.
BP: Biggest challenge?
Rickey: We had a few challenges. When I came here of course I think the number one angst, among our partners at the major-league level, the farm directors who looked at their players playing in the Pacific Coast League, [was that as] we amalgamated into a 16-team league, we were spanning three time zones and had to cross the international border into Canada, and generally had to change airlines in going there, and between customs and immigration it was quite an adverse thing. So when I came into the Pacific Coast League we had Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and today those three clubs have moved to Sacramento, Albuquerque and Round Rock. And if you had said that we would be able to accomplish finding three prestigious ownership groups, three groups that could accomplish the kinds of stadiums that we’re now playing in, and our three most successful markets in terms of attendance within the period of time we’ve done it, and solve that major irritant, that anguish that all of our farm directors seemed to be so concerned about within the period of time we’ve done, I think that was a challenge.
You know what I’m avoiding (Author’s note: Rickey and I have been in conversation for more than four years on Portland’s situation, which is what Rickey is alluding to), that I’m not talking about. I think that was a wonderful challenge, and one that we should feel some satisfaction about, but that’s not me, that’s the ownership groups, and the fact that they were able to pull it off in that period of time. Time and time again it’s finding the right people who can overcome challenges, and [one of those challenges was] the one case of the very unfortunate decision where a club relocated from Albuquerque to your home city [Portland] and faced tremendous financial adversity for some incorrect premises with which they started into that.
BP: You segue into that topic you may not wish to talk about… Until recently there were some struggles with the Portland Beavers and negotiations for new ownership. The PCL actually collectively owned the Beavers for a period of time. How difficult was that deal to get done, and what are your feelings about Portland as a PCL market given the talk of MLB relocation or expansion into the market in the past?
Rickey: I can’t anticipate that we’ll ever get into another situation as complex, with as many diverse forces at work, as what occurred in Portland. They were wonderfully complex, and any student of sports law, any person who wants to undertake the most intricate kind of complexity, would relish that situation.
In the end it boils down to a trusting relationship with some very key city leaders, and an incredible support of the Pacific Coast League board of directors holding together through very trying circumstances and financial adversity, which minor leagues are not set up to handle, and some collaboration with other individuals outside.
There were wonderful intrigues, I won’t go into those, but there were wonderful intrigues and formidable obstacles to overcome, far out of proportion to what minor-league baseball is accustomed to dealing with, and it was an awful lot of teamwork, it was an awful lot of people’s willingness to [make it] happen, and some terribly talented individuals who came to the fore that all pulled together. But it was worth the fight.
You have to understand that of the 30 Triple-A markets, Portland is the largest, and we knew baseball could be successful there if handled right. We realized that one of the other corrosive factors, as you’re solving the Triple-A problem, it’s a corrosive thing to have the wonderful attention of major league baseball saying, “Guess what? We might want to come there,” which kind of helps undermine the collective enthusiasm about solving the Triple-A problems. Our message was repeatedly, “Major League Baseball may be exploiting this market, but we will honestly say–and we will try to be very professional–that they’re not coming here right now. If they’re coming here, we believe that they’re going to be coming here down the road, and maybe not in the next five years, maybe not in the next seven years, so how about joining with us to pull together to solve the Triple-A thing?” And that was hard to do with all of the fanfare that came and went during that period about Major League Baseball.
BP: How do you, as president of the PCL, approach issues regarding stadiums league-wide? How critical is the functional state of the facility in keeping attendance levels high, and are there facilities in the PCL that are a concern from a functional facility perspective?
Rickey: There was a concern in Albuquerque; the Albuquerque club didn’t feel it could make it, and there were people willing to buy that club to move it to Portland. There were concerns in Vancouver; the Vancouver club moved to Sacramento. There were concerns in Fresno, as we played in a college stadium, and it took us years to get that solved. And we have concerns in Nashville, Tennessee right now, which are being worked on extremely hard.
What I think is easier to appreciate in today’s day and age, as we become more savvy and there are trade journals dedicated to just the business side of sports, and all of this information is so readily available on the internet, [is] how intricate it is to deal with municipalities, mixing public and private money to build facilities for public/private joint ventures as it were, and how when you involve taxpayer monies and legislation and trying to acquire land in premium areas where safety is obvious and where you have road access or have to build road access, all of the components of that do not get pulled together overnight. Sometimes there will be private parties, as has happened to us on one or two occasions, which would hope to derail a venture in order that other private parties might prevail. Once they think that there’s a chance of bringing a team to a marketplace, [they’ll say] “Let’s see if we can’t disrupt their efforts so that we can do our own efforts, on a different piece of land, with a different group of people.” So sometimes there are some fairly hidden and very clever countervailing forces at play.
BP: What do you see as some near-term goals for the PCL?
Rickey: The near-term and the far-term are married, and they’re both the same thing, which is successful, stable operation. We’ve seen such a renaissance in recent years of breaking attendance, almost every year, our attendances are going higher and higher and that’s due to some wonderful new facilities, and some wonderful improvements in operation. The thing that you want more than anything else is to be able to successfully provide this magnificent product–live, professional, Triple-A baseball–to the marketplace that your team is in, and the fact that fans are coming out to this as never before is I think a very positive reflection of how well we are reading what the fans enjoy, and how well we’re doing that.
BP: Much has been made of your grandfather’s place in signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier. Is there a sense of coming full circle with MLB hosting the first civil rights game in Memphis this coming season, and the fact that the Red Birds are part of the PCL?
Rickey: I am blessed that my name is in any way linked to the Robinson family name. It’s a wonderful legacy. I’ve seen such an evolution during my years, and I’ve always had the reference gauge for me of something embedded so deeply in our roots, and it was that signing of Robinson as a yardstick, and when you see that our society continues to reach new plateaus and [is] not willing to relinquish those plateaus on the basis of the fact that we know better now. And when you sit and watch two football games on a Sunday and they say this is the first Super Bowl in which we will have two African-American head coaches, you begin to think that it’s wonderful…it’s magnificent, this game in Memphis marking the advance of civil rights and we should, and we do, honor those who have been a part of achieving that. I’m proud that my grandfather had such an early role in that, but I think the greater satisfaction comes from seeing when coaches are interviewed, as happened yesterday after the game, and said, you know, “I’m happy for Indianapolis.” The greater goal is to get to the point where skin color is just not the measure of anything.
BP: Finally, can you ever imagine your life without baseball within it, and if you weren’t a “baseball man” what line of work do you feel you would have found yourself in?
Rickey: I don’t know what I would have done outside of baseball. It’s a wonderful question. I think those roots from growing up on a farm are much deeper in me, deeper embedded in me than I’d like to admit. I’ve always loved animals. I love the expression “I wish I could ever be what my dog thinks I am.”
I think baseball for me has been somewhere between a love affair and an addiction. And it’s never quite been important to define which part of that is the greater, or how much of it is what. But it certainly is a lucky thing, it’s a lucky thing in the way my grandfather referred to luck, but it’s a lucky thing to be able to earn a living in something that brings you so much satisfaction, and that you want to be in so much. Early on I got around baseball people, and it was the people in and around the game that made so much to it. So I don’t think I’m going to be able to answer your question.
I’ve had to interface with an awful lot of players whose careers were envied, and who were at a point of dismay, and wondering what they would do with their lives next. I think I’ve always tried to get the idea to them and others who weren’t in the game professionally that I don’t think the professional baseball game needs to be the only magic. I think the game of baseball is magic, I think the sport has so many elements to it, and whether you work in it, whether you’re a player who gets to go out and play in major league facilities, or whether you’re somebody such as myself who works around the game and tries to help the game, or whether you are a parent who is in a non-baseball job and you get to go out and coach your kids in Little League, or you get to participate in your high school… There are aspects of me that have a great, great, great admiration for the amateur game, but it’s all, in the final analysis, the underpinning is all that it’s the same game.
Thanks to Caleb Peiffer and Shanshan Ding for their help in preparing this interview.