Although they might not have articulated it in so many words, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey knew that they had changed baseball—and America.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, born in 1919 to a family of Georgia sharecroppers, had risen from poverty to become a standout athlete at UCLA and an officer in the segregated United States Army during World War II. But he is of course best known as the first African-American ballplayer in the modern major leagues.
Rickey, the brainy and accomplished general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the man who put him there. His signing of Robinson in 1947, although highly controversial at the time, is now seen as an important milestone not only in the history of baseball, but in what would, a decade or so later, become known as the Civil Rights Movement.
So when Rickey left the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, three years after having signed Robinson to a Dodgers contract—Robinson, by then an established superstar, wrote him a letter of thanks. Rickey responded in kind, writing admirably about their friendship, albeit with a tone that today would be seen as patronizing. Rickey provides unsolicited post-baseball career advice and offers his own services as Robinson’s agent for a future position in the sport’s administrative affairs.
Ballplayers of that era were not known as prolific letter-writers. Indeed, Ricky and Robinson rarely exchanged letters during their time together in Brooklyn. But Robinson was different—and so was their relationship, the nature of which is reflected in this correspondence. “I think the honesty of the comments makes this letter unique,” says Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. “The men are discussing important events with real feeling and sincerity of emotion.”
The most important of those events, of course, was Rickey’s signing of Robinson. It wouldn’t have worked if the two of them hadn’t been able to work together. The letters, both of which are in the Library of Congress, show that despite Rickey’s tendency to patronize his young African- American star, there was a genuine respect—and admiration—between the two men. “I think these letters are very true to the nature of their relationship,” says Eig.