In the history of the St. Louis Cardinals, one figure towers above all, despite never pitching an inning or taking an at-bat for the team.  For decades, the club was defined by his presence – or his absence. From 1876 to 1925, three different National League teams in St. Louis never finished higher than second place.  Then everything changed.

 

The St. Louis Cardinals became the league’s most dominant team.  Over a twenty-one-season period, 1926 to 1946, the Cardinals won nine pennants and six World Series titles.  Branch Rickey is the biggest reason why. 

 

Known primarily today outside St. Louis for signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier in baseball, Rickey spent just eight seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Between the Browns and Cardinals, however, Rickey spent more than thirty years in St. Louis. All six of his children, born between 1913 and 1924, arrived when he was employed by a St. Louis team.  St. Louis is where Rickey made his major league debut as a player, spent his entire managerial career, and first enjoyed the fruits of success as a front office executive.  During his early years with the Cardinals, Rickey and baseball survived a World War, the Black Sox Scandal, and Prohibition.  The 1920s began with Babe Ruth reshaping baseball strategy and Rickey reshaping baseball development.  With Rickey’s vision and owner Sam Breadon’s financial backing, the Cardinals took the lead in developing a minor league system that has lasted a century. 

Breadon, Gussie Busch (through Anheuser-Busch), and Bill DeWitt Jr. are the most successful owners in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Every single World Series title the Cardinals have celebrated has occurred under the stewardship of these three executives. Rickey is the most consequential general manager in the history of the game.  Rickey worked for Breadon and Busch.  DeWitt’s father worked for Rickey. 

When Rickey left the Cardinals in the fall of 1942, the club lost more than one man; it lost an entire infrastructure.  St. Louis's loss became Brooklyn’s gain. The Cardinal Way became the Dodger Way.  The Brooklyn farm system, just like the one developed in St. Louis, led to sustained success at the major league level. Rickey developed the blueprint for both.

Rickey spent the final years of his career in the city where it began. The 1964 season, Rickey’s last one in baseball, played out in a similar fashion to 1926, the first full season he focused on executive duties and the development of the farm system.  In both instances, the Cardinals won a seven-game series against the Yankees, with Rickey playing a role in the front office.

The 1926 and 1964 seasons are just two of many parallels between the Cardinals and Yankees, parallels that began when Rickey joined the Cardinals. Rickey’s career, and early professional baseball, were shaped by battles over alcohol.  The city of St. Louis has its own unique history tied to the beer industry, and both the city and its teams are linked to a variety of scandals and controversies throughout baseball history.  Mr. Rickey’s Redbirds recounts these various sagas, weaving these tales into the timeline of Rickey’s career. 

Our story is brought up to date with the final chapter focusing on the modern-day “Branch Rickeys”  the new age front office personnel. Prominent in this story are DeWitt, the current chairman of the Cardinals, and Jeff Luhnow, the man he hired to reshape the Cardinals talent evaluation process.  Those decisions have helped lead us to where we are in the game today, with an arms race for statistical talent and two new scandals in the past few years.

Rickey’s life, career, and impact are an often-told story, but the emphasis is largely on his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the story of Jackie Robinson. But even without Robinson, Rickey would still deserve a place in the Hall of Fame.  That honor would be deserved because of his pioneering work with the Cardinals. No one casts a longer shadow on St. Louis baseball than Rickey.

Mr. Rickey’s Redbirds, though, is not just his story. It’s the story of all the incredible players he scouted, signed, or traded and the talented executives he hired, fired, or deeply influenced over the years.  It’s the story of baseball told through a city and a franchise that proudly claims more World Series titles than any other National League team. 

It was in St. Louis where Rickey once read the words of ancient philosophers in the dugout, but claimed he wasn’t an educated man.  “Why, I’ve only now gotten to the point where I can translate Caesar from the Latin,” he insisted.  Rickey had a better vocabulary and a bigger bank account than the men who played for him. The longtime baseball executive was a voracious reader. His players barely read the paper. Rickey enjoyed cigars.  His players preferred chewing tobacco.  A devout Methodist who refused to go to the ballpark on Sundays, Rickey liked to talk about saintly virtues.  His players often thought of him as a demon, especially at contract time.  But somehow, the high-minded visionary and his unsophisticated talent clicked.

 

Over the years, the players, coaches, and staff who embraced Rickey and his methods found an unquestionably loyal partner. Pepper Martin rose to fame playing for the Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the 1930s.  After his playing days were over, Martin, like many others, followed Rickey to Brooklyn.  Managing in the Dodgers farm system one year, Martin got so upset over a call he began choking an umpire.  Following the incident, Commissioner Happy Chandler summoned Martin to his office for an explanation.  “What were your intentions?” Chandler asked.  “I wanted to kill the buzzard,” Martin replied.  Chandler suspended him for the rest of the season.  The next year, Martin, always one of Rickey’s favorites, returned to his duties as manager of the Miami Sun Sox. 

*****

Writing a book can be a solitary exercise but the experience is made exponentially better by friends and associates willing to lend a hand or offer advice.  Joan Ford, Richard Hamra, and Caroline Pfefferkorn proofread significant portions of the raw manuscript.  Jeffrey Kittel proved invaluable in helping me gain a better understanding of baseball's early days in St. Louis. Jacob Pomrenke read the chapter on the St. Louis connections to the Black Sox scandal and graciously provided a roadmap to greater insight. Frank Absher pointed me to resources that helped chronicle the early days of St. Louis radio. Mark Tomasik, who blogs about all things related to Cardinals history at RetroSimba.com, read every chapter and provided detailed notes and feedback. Any improvements to the book you are reading are primarily due to their efforts.  Any mistakes are mine.

 The city and county of St. Louis have wonderful research facilities and incredible venues to research baseball.  The staffs at the various branches of the St. Louis Library, the St. Louis County Library, and the Municipal Library Consortium were consistently accommodating and responsive to any questions I had.  The Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Mercantile Library are great places to delve into the past.  Charles Brown at the Mercantile Library was especially helpful. 

I am forever grateful to all the historians, researchers and writers who plowed this ground before me.  The history of baseball in St. Louis is incredibly rich and diverse.  Thanks to people such as Miller Huggins and Branch Rickey, great stories about the Cardinals extend well beyond St. Louis.  One can find a lot about the Cardinals by reading the histories of the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. 

I happened to be reading one such book, The Lords of Baseball, a few years ago. The book was written by Harold Parrott, a former sportswriter and one-time traveling secretary for the Dodgers when Rickey was in Brooklyn.  The book was republished in 2001 by Parrott’s sons and it happened to have an email address inside it.  On a whim, I fired off an email, not expecting a response.  To my surprise, I got one within minutes.

That sparked an email exchange with Brian Parrott, Harold’s son.  I was struck how every time he mentioned the name of his father’s former boss, he never called him “Branch” or “Rickey,” but always, “Mr. Rickey.”  I was aware, of course, that many of his players and employees had addressed him in that fashion, but Branch Rickey died more than fifty years ago.  How many other people do you know get afforded such a title in an informal email exchange? I thought then, and now, that Mr. Rickey’s Redbirds was the perfect name for what you hold in your hands. 

On the February day we traded emails, I heard on the radio that Red Schoendienst had just reported to spring training, an event he’d been a part of for more than seventy years.  As we’ll see later, Red’s early story, like so many others, has a connection to Rickey, a man whose major league career began as a player with the Browns and ended in the front office with the Cardinals.  In fact, Rickey’s last day with the team in October 1964 occurred on the same day Schoendienst was introduced as the club’s new manager. Rickey debuted with the Browns in 1905.  Schoendienst passed away in 2018.  Thanks to Red and hundreds of others who came before him, Rickey played with, managed, or scouted someone who appeared in a major league uniform for more than 100 straight seasons.

While playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, shortstop Dick Groat once overheard Rickey tell someone that he should be a .300 hitter.  “If Rickey thinks I should hit .300,” thought Groat, “I should do it because he knows more about baseball than any man in the world.” Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.  “His legacy was the farm system, the black player, the Gashouse Gang, and, ultimately, the Dodgers Dynasty…” 

Infielder Bobby Bragan played for Rickey’s Dodgers in the 1940s. Decades later, a reporter asked him about his fondest baseball memory. “My friendship and close association with Branch Rickey is by far the fondest,” Bragan said. “I don’t know what comes second but there’s such a big gap between first and second that it doesn’t really matter.”

“Such a big gap between first and second” is also a way of describing Rickey’s unmatched legacy.  And nowhere is that legacy more deeply intertwined than in St. Louis with the Cardinals.  When Rickey left the team for Brooklyn in the fall of 1942, a reporter asked his secretary, Mary Murphy, if she would miss him.  “Sure, I’ll miss him,” she replied. “Won’t you?”  It took years for the Cardinals and their fans to appreciate just how much they did.

Mr. Rickey's Redbirds

Baseball, Beer, Scandals & Celebrations in St. Louis

Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.

 

  

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© 2020 Mr. Rickey's Redbirds by Mike Mitchell