Published on January 11th, 2011 | by Leonard Jackson0
The Not So Good Old Days
Like everyone else I’ve spent a good deal of time the last few weekends watching football games, both college and professional and I couldn’t help but notice the time spent demonstrating and preening on every play. On a twenty yard run the offense struts, on a sack the defense struts, and on a three yard run or pass both strut. Of course, the pros put on a much more creative show – I understand there’s a penalty for too much celebration in college, but I’m sure there’s a lot of practicing today on campuses in preparation for the big moment in the pros when the signature move can be unveiled for the fans.
This always reminds me the world of athletics has moved up on our entertainment preference list in the last fifty years. Movie and TV stars have always been up there at the top of the idolization charts. They were the ones with the big money, big houses and all the other “bigs” that go along with being the fan favorites. Sports, on the other hand, certainly had their heroes, but few were actually household names that most everybody was familiar with. The popularity of fantasy football may have helped some but now not just quarterbacks but running backs, defensive lineman, safeties and even kickers are universally known and well paid for it.
Today, more than ever, sports are entertainment. Certainly the greater talent is there now. The players are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter. The equipment is far better and the facilities much grander than was ever imagined not too long ago. But when salaries now paid make even the lowest man on the roster an extremely comfortable living and at the top end multi-millionaires, the place of sports now has a much more prominent place in our lives than it did a generation ago.
When I see all the self-congratulations on the most routine plays, I marvel at what the player must be thinking. After all, he’s paid these enormous amounts of money to do what he just did – make a tackle. What’s so wonderful about doing your job? True it’s probably impossible for a lot of us to do, but on the other hand a lot of other players do it every day also. What’s the big deal?
In contrast I remember one of my heroes – Branch Rickey. I was a big St. Louis Cardinals in those days and Rickey as manager or general manager or both by clever trading and talent development led the Cards to four World Series championships and two more National League pennants during his time with the Cards.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967. Played briefly for several teams and incidentally, he was released from the first team to bring him to the major leagues for refusing to play on Sundays.
He was hired as assistant to the owner of the St. Louis Browns in 1912 leaving a struggling law practice to begin an amazing career in professional baseball. Besides the Cardinals he was later with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Rickey began the farm system developing young players in the minor leagues. He taught them how to play on the field and how to conduct themselves off the field. He, like many who he signed and coached, was an old farm boy himself and had to learn the ropes of life in the city and he was an excellent mentor for many of these young players fresh out of the sandlot leagues all over the country. This put him in touch with hundreds of promising young players and led to his most notable contribution – signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson was the first black player to play in the major league, an amazing accomplishment at this time. But it was typical Rickey. He knew that there were better black baseball players than Robinson. He also knew that there were black players who were more diplomatic – less aggressive than Robinson. But he chose Robinson after much study because he knew Jackie had enough talent to excel in the majors and enough competitive fire and determination to make it work. So he nurtured the young and talented athlete, bringing him along in the Dodger system until he felt it was the right time to introduce him to the majors and make this momentous change in the national pastime. He was right about the timing and the impact that this player would make on the sport. One more thing about Mr. Rickey: while this was generally considered his most notable contribution to baseball, “The Deacon” (as he was called) also knew that there were hundreds of black kids with lots of baseball talents that very few scouts knew anything about and he aimed to bring the best of them to the big time.
But my favorite Rickey story is one that is accepted as true and always comes back to memory when I am watching the prancing and preening in today’s sporting world. Rickey was a tough taskmaster and a hard man to deal with at contract time. In those days each player negotiated his own one-year contract before each season. Rickey was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at this time and the Pirates had been a terrible team for a number of years and Rickey was hired to improve the situation. One of their few bright spots was Ralph Kiner who played left field and was a super home run hitter. He had led the league in home runs the year before and was naturally looking forward to a raise for the coming season. He was amazed when his offer from Rickey was not a raise but a pay cut. He complained to the old guy and pleaded his case “I led the league in home runs last year, how could you make me an offer like that,” he asked. Rickey asked, “Where did the Pirates finish in the league last year?” “We were in last place,” replied Kiner. Rickey explained “We could have done that without you.”
Man, that was a long time ago.