1947. Brooklyn, NYC. Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson takes the field for the Dodgers as MLB reintegrates after 35 years as an all-white entity. Yes, there were black ballplayers in the majors (and NFL) as the century began but were slowly weeded out as racist owners like Braves and Redskins owner George Preston Marshall gained power over the commissioner’s office.
We celebrate this day across baseball America. But there’s a backstory that is rarely told, and in my opinion, is just as important.
1942. St. Louis Missouri. The Cardinals win the World Series after a franchise record setting 106-win season. The team is stocked for the future and poised for an extended reign at the top of the National League. Virtually entirely homegrown, this elite unit was led by Manager Billy Southworth (former GasHouse Gang CF) who too was a product of GM Branch Rickey’s invention, the “farm system.” Despite their successes however, the Cardinals would average less than 7,000 paying customers in 1942 at Sportsman’s Park, and would outdraw their AL counterpart (and tenant) the lowly last place Browns by just over 150,000 fans enroute to their championship.
Dismayed by the Cardinals seeming inability to transfer their on field successes to the box office, GM Rickey conceived a brilliant and extremely covert plan to draw an entirely new audience while enhancing his team at the same time. Secretly he began to court, and sign in some cases the best talent he could woo from the Negro Leagues. History will debate forever who exactly signed Cardinal contracts amongst the Black players however what we know for sure is that they never played a day. Why? Dizzy Dean.
Dizzy Dean had created a legend in the Midwest by ’42.
Hall of Fame. 30-game winner. However, a sore arm had shortened his career and the Cardinal legend had been relegated to the radio booth. He longed for more and secretly yearned to be GM of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. So when opportunity arose, he jumped in with both feet.
According to Hall of Fame shortstop Ray Dandridge, he mistakenly mailed his contract to the general office of St. Louis baseball vs. the personal mailbox of Branch Rickey. A secretary and friend of Dizzy Dean’s opened it and shared it with him. An avowed racist, Dean immediately shared it with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, exclaiming “he’s going to field an all nigger team Sam!” Breadon reached out to MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vetoed the plan and questioned how this could even occur without the knowledge of the owner. Despite 106 wins and the World Championship, Branch Rickey was fired. It would be 5 years before he would succeed where Dean couldn’t stop him. Hello Jackie Robinson. Welcome to Brooklyn. Now you know.
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