Branch Rickey

Branch Rickey, left, was in Cooperstown, N.Y., when Jackie Robinson, center, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. At right is Robinson’s wife, Rachel.

Believe it or not, we are more than two months into the Major League Baseball season. Rocky Mountain Vibes minor league baseball is just around the corner.

This time of year always gets me thinking about how special the “Grand Old Game” is to me and millions of others. Did you know professional baseball as we know it today might look quite a bit different if Branch Rickey had gotten his way 60 years ago?

Rickey, of course, is famous for two major contributions to professional baseball. As a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ on-field (he was their manager for six years) and front-office staff in the 1920s and 1930s, he pioneered the minor league system. His use of minor league teams specifically for the Cardinals’ benefit was seen as a threat to Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

In 1942, Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers as general manager and club president. In December 1945, he shocked the world when he signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract, paving the way for Robinson to become the first modern African-American player in the major leagues.

In 1959, Rickey, always the innovator, was working for the Pittsburgh Pirates and had an idea for a third major league. He called it the Continental League. The new eight-team league was to begin play in April 1961. Cities that were to be represented included New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto and Denver, plus three additional markets later identified as Atlanta, Buffalo and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Three weeks after the formation of the Continental League was announced, on Aug. 18, 1959, Rickey sold his stake in the Pirates, resigned as board chairman and signed a 16-month contract to become the first president of the new league at a reported $50,000 annual salary. At this point, the established American and National Leagues were wary of a new challenge to baseball’s antitrust law exemption.

Rickey’s proposed league continued to gain steam. He made public appearances, including as the “mystery guest” on the prime-time TV quiz show “What’s My Line?” to advance his view that a third, eight-team league would be more beneficial to baseball than expansion of the two existing circuits.

But behind the scenes, National and American League owners were working on their plans to expand their loops and sabotage Rickey’s start-up league. In August 1960, they offered the Continental League’s owners a deal. Each established league would add two new franchises by 1962. In return, they demanded that the new circuit disband.

Against Rickey’s advice, his owners agreed to the compromise and the new league perished, still on the drawing board.

In 1961, Minneapolis–Saint Paul got a 60-year-old American League franchise, the transferred Washington Senators, with an expansion team replacing them in the nation’s capital. In 1962, the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s were admitted to the Senior Circuit as expansion teams. By 1993, all of the Continental League’s cities, except Buffalo, were in Major League Baseball.

Denver, of course got the Colorado Rockies. As an added bonus for fans in the southern part of our state, the Rockies began a long affiliation with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox that same year. The Sky Sox were part of the Pacific Coast League, whose president was — and still is — Branch Rickey III, who made his home in the Broadmoor area for 20 years.

I often wonder what Major League Baseball might look like today had Rickey gotten his way. It is doubtful another innovator the likes of Rickey will ever come along to challenge baseball’s establishment in such an impactful way.

Danny Summers has covered sports at all levels in the Pikes Peak region since 2001. Send your story ideas and feedback to danny.summers@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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