Baseball execs honor Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson, with new Michigan Law professorship

July 14, 2008
Contact: Laura Lessnau llessnau@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Branch Rickey, the man who helped break the Major League Baseball color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to a big league contract, will be honored this week by establishment of a collegiate professorship at the University of Michigan Law School, the institution from which Rickey graduated in 1911.

The professorship will be created, pending approval by the University Regents on Thursday, thanks to generous gifts from the Judy & Fred Wilpon Foundation, Major League Baseball, the Zell Family Foundation, and others. U-M alumnus Fred Wilpon is principal owner of the New York Mets, and Sam Zell, a Michigan Law alum, has had a longtime interest in the Chicago White Sox and acquired the Chicago Cubs when he bought the Tribune Co.

Sports fans know the story of Jackie Robinson, whose debut in 1947 ended an era of Jim Crow in the major leagues that stretched back to the 19th Century. Less familiar is the story of Rickey, the small-town Ohioan who had already played big league baseball, studied and taught law at Ohio Wesleyan, and been a varsity baseball coach and college athletic director before arriving at Michigan Law at the age of 27.

“Branch Rickey’s time as a student at the Law School exemplifies the ethos of hard work and perseverance that also became the hallmarks of his career in baseball,” said Law School Dean Evan Caminker, who noted that Rickey was battling a life-threatening disease, tuberculosis, at the same time he was both excelling in Law School and managing Michigan’s varsity baseball team. “Mr. Rickey’s uphill fight to integrate Major League Baseball helped ensure that people of color who shared that same level of dedication could finally be fully rewarded for their efforts.”

Rickey went from Michigan Law (where, significantly, his classmates included African Americans and women) to an innovative baseball career. The 1911 graduate established the original farm team system (first for the St. Louis Cardinals, and then for the Brooklyn Dodgers) and built the first Florida spring training facility, Dodgertown.

He also pushed changes such as pitching machines, batting helmets, and even expansion from the existing 16 big league teams, all while also urging the big leagues to use talented ballplayers who had been shunned because of their race for more than half a century.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to honor a man whose towering stature in America’s pastime also had a huge impact on America’s promise of equality of opportunity and justice for everyone,” Fred Wilpon said of the professorship. “That’s in the best tradition of the University of Michigan, and I’m excited to help honor Mr. Rickey by strengthening the alma mater we share.”

The Michigan Law honor joins a growing list of accolades for the man ESPN named Most Influential Sports Figure of the 20th Century. The tributes should come as no surprise for a man whose lifelong commitment to egalitarianism culminated in Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947, one year earlier than President Harry S Truman integrated the military, seven years before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education required integration of schools, and eight years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

Law School