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He Was A Yankee? Branch Rickey

by Paul Semendinger

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Branch Rickey, most famous for being the man who signed Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier, was also, years before that big moment, a member of the New York Highlanders.

It’s true.

Branch Rickey was a Yankee. (Well, a Highlander., but in the end, it’s all the same.)

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Branch Rickey was a baseball pioneer. His keen mind, willingness to push boundaries, and skills as a baseball executive changed baseball forever. It was this big thinking that earned him enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.

Branch Rickey was instrumental in breaking baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson

Branch Rickey is credited with creating the modern minor league farm system

Branch Rickey also introduced the batting helmet

But, as I noted, before all of that, Branch Rickey was a player on the New York Highlanders.

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The year was 1907.

The Highlanders of 1907 were not very good. They would finish the year with a 70-78 record and finish in fifth place. This was the team that Branch Rickey played for.

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The Highlanders acquired Branch Rickey in a trade with the St. Louis Browns in February 1907. It was a straight-up trade. The Highlanders sent Joe Yeager, an infielder who batted .275 over two seasons for them to the Browns for Rickey, a left-handed hitting catcher, who had batted .284 in 69 games in 1906.

It seemed like a fair enough trade at the time. One might even assume the Highlanders got the better of the deal. Rickey was young (just 25-years-old), Yeager was already in his 30’s.

The problem, though, was Rickey had a bum arm. He had hurt his arm late in the 1906 season. After the season Rickey, a part time student at this time, returned to school (Ohio Wesleyan University) to continue his undergraduate work that would allow him to go to law school, but his arm never really recovered.

As a Highlander, Rickey appeared in 52 games. He didn’t hit much, posting a .182 batting average with no homers. This, of course, was the Deadball Era, but still…

To make matters worse, other teams noticed that as a catcher, Branch Rickey just couldn’t throw. At all. In fact, on June 28, 1907, Branch Rickey set a Major League record that still lasts today.

In a game against the Washington Senators, a game won by the Washington squad 16-5, Branch Rickey’s dead arm became the story. The Senators ran with abandon on him, with no fear of ever getting thrown out.

The number is staggering…

One wouldn’t believe it…

In all, Rickey allowed 13 successful steals against him that day. Thirteen!

That would be the last time he’d appear as a catcher until late August. Branch Rickey spent the bulk of his remaining playing time in the outfield or at first base, though he did appear in three games behind the plate in early September of that year.

Except for a brief two-game stint in 1914, that 1907 season was Rickey’s last as a player. Bigger things were to come…

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Readers are encouraged to visit this site to see a copy of the full description of the Washington Post’s coverage of Rickey’s poor performance on that day in June when he could nary throw out a base runner. Here is a sample:

“The Washingtons soon discovered that as a thrower Rickey was many chips shy, and they paused in their travels merely long enough to get a breath.”

They just don’t write like that in the papers any longer.

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