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Messy Motives and Good Work: Lessons for Labour Day

Branch Rickey's legacy demonstrates that a desire for profit can coexist with a desire for justice.

Jackie Robinson is rightly honoured as a shining example of how to stand against systemic injustice and evil. His exemplary professional conduct and moral courage during his rookie season is well-told in Jonathan Eig's first-rate biography, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, as well as 42, the recent bio-pic. But there is also a relevant backstory here that is less familiar: the legacy of Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a forward-thinking leader who helped pave the way for Jackie's success and the permanent desegregation of major-league baseball. If Robinson is a model of courage, Rickey might be a model of prudence. While Robinson changed the game and hence influenced society, Rickey built a business that ended up changing culture. Rickey's untold story invites us to consider commerce as a means of cultural renewal.

Rickey's desire to reform the game grew out of his early experiences with a black college team member, Charlie Thomas, whom he coached at Ohio Wesleyan in the early 1900s. Charlie was denied a room at a local hotel on a trip to play Notre Dame. When Rickey found Charlie weeping and tearing at his hands as if he could change the colour of his skin, he took on a special role advocating for Charlie and set out on a personal course that would help change race relations in America.

As Rickey advanced through baseball's ranks, many perceived him as enigmatic. His ambitions for social reform were clearly motivated by faith, piety, and a deep sense of justice, but he also wanted to make as much money as possible and to win a pennant. He saw talented black players who could help him achieve his goals, and he wanted them on his team. Robinson's biographer, Jonathan Eig, captures the paradox well: "His design was to sign the most talented black players available, pay the men as little as possible for as long as possible, to make the Dodgers winners, to increase ticket sales, to live up to his religious values, and to make baseball a more democratic game. In what order did he rank those priorities? He never said."

One might conclude that Rickey was deeply conflicted, and that his "pursuit of mammon" was incompatible with his "great experiment" to tear down the colour barrier in professional baseball. But could it be that his economic ambitions and shrewd business skills were the essential elements to fuel the purifying fire of biblical justice in baseball, and in society more broadly? In Christian circles we're often quick to criticize pragmatism—and rightfully so when it's devoid of scriptural guidance. As Proverbs 8:12 declares that wisdom and prudence dwell together, it's also true that the profitable and the principled can exist in harmony.


Harvesting Change

In our work, we have an opportunity to affect change in a variety of settings. The strategies and tactics we pursue to influence others matter greatly. Tim Stafford's book, Shaking the System, explores the rich history of Christian-led reform movements in America. Stafford observes that the right strategy for transformation depends on the unique context in which change is sought. To illustrate, he shares a childhood memory of harvesting almonds: "It wasn't as simple as it sounds. You could hit and shake the tree with all your strength and get hardly any almonds to fall. But we also had a tool, a heavy ball of rubber attached to a stick. For some reason, if you hit the tree with that rubber ball, it would vibrate the tree just right and the almonds would cascade down."

Influencing our workplaces for integrity and justice follows that principle. No universal tool exists for every change goal; the stick and rubber ball, perfect for almonds, are not much use harvesting bananas. Influence strategies must be nuanced. We need to bring our best creative thinking to bear on the tough work of persuading others. Branch Rickey—idealistic pragmatist—understood this reality. In his efforts to change baseball, he intuitively drew on key principles from social and organizational psychology.

1. Harness the Principle of Liking. Rickey applied a key social and organizational insight to his advantage in his use of the principle of liking. To satisfy their need for affiliation, people generally like those who are like them and who like them. The more favourable impression you create with those you seek to influence, the more likely you are to align their actions with your intentions. Just prior to signing Robinson in 1945, Rickey sought to increase support from white fans by ensuring that the likeable and congenial Dodgers announcer, Red Barber, supported his integration efforts. As Eig notes, "The broadcaster sang the praises of all Dodgers, no matter how weak, how old, or how inept. His job was to make the home team sound appealing. . . . The boss wanted to make certain that there would be no hint of disapproval, no subtle digs, no awkward moments of silence during Barber's play-by-play when Robinson came to bat." Barber, a pious man, nearly turned Rickey down; despite being raised in the segregated south, he decided that discrimination was morally wrong. By securing Barber, Rickey had a champion behind the microphone with whom many of his strongest opponents could relate.

Mr. Rickey also leveraged the compelling attributes of non-violent resistance. In the legendary first meeting between Rickey and Robinson, Rickey jawed for three hours with Jackie about what to expect if he joined white baseball. The memorable and true-to-life exchange is captured in the motion picture 42.

Rickey warns, "Your enemy will be out in force, but you cannot meet him on his own low ground."

Robinson responds, "Do you want a player who does not have the guts to fight back?"

"No," answers Rickey. "I want a player who has got the guts not to fight back."

Rickey knew that if whites saw Jackie hold the moral high ground in the face of repeated abuse, their empathy and fondness for Robinson would grow, and Rickey's change efforts would gain momentum.

Rickey also took advantage of the psychology of liking's mere exposure effect, which suggests that people often grow fonder of those with whom they interact more regularly. When Rickey began his "great experiment," he intentionally chose an everyday player—one who had the talent and durability to be on the field and in front of fans every day. Even when Robinson slumped during the early part of his rookie season, Rickey refused to take him out of the lineup. Rickey believed that the more people saw Robinson's moral courage, raw talent, and aggressive style of play, the more they would grow to like him, and in turn confront their own prejudices and feelings about segregated society.

2. Leverage the Power of Authority and Social Norms. Social psychology shows that individuals look to authority figures and social norms to assess their own situations and make competent decisions related to their own goals. Thus, authority figures and norms either support desired change or preserve the status quo. When a credible authority figure violates an unjust norm, this can be a powerful way to challenge it while also showing a viable alternative. Rickey's leadership routine included regular and visible norm violations. Jim Crow laws demanding segregated public facilities for blacks and whites were customs of the day, and they posed a difficult obstacle for Rickey's reform efforts, especially during spring training. Prior to the 1947 season, Rickey moved—at personal expense—his Dodgers' spring training to Cuba, which was racially desegregated. The next year in Florida, he opened "Dodgertown," a training camp that bucked local segregation laws and put black and white players in the same bunk houses and dining halls.

Rickey also took advantage of Brooklyn's experience with assimilation to aid his cause. He wanted to desegregate all of baseball, and recognized Brooklyn as the ideal melting pot in which to begin his experiment. Almost everyone in Brooklyn was from somewhere else, and residents were generally more concerned about what united them than what divided them. Brooklyn offered a sympathetic backdrop against which Rickey could carry out his plans in opposition to the rest of baseball.

3. Recognize that People Will Act in Accordance with Past Behaviours and Vows. Social psychology suggests that people will act in ways consistent with prior behaviours and commitments to enhance their sense of self. That's why public vows and New Year's resolutions help turn aspirations into action. When white Southern players allegedly petitioned for Robinson's removal from the team during spring training in Havana, Mr. Rickey was furious. He summoned each player to his room and asked him to declare whether he would play on an integrated team. All but one capitulated, and three of them eventually became Robinson's most loyal advocates.

In the absence of a strong track record of actions and behaviours consistent with desired change, minority influence theory can be vital. Generally speaking, minority influence is difficult to achieve because majority in-group members (in this case white baseball players, fans, and management) resist change if they closely identify with their majority group status. However, research suggests that persistent, indirect, and private minority influence can be effective, and this was at the core of Rickey's plan. His minority voice for desegregating baseball was up against a majority view that sought to protect the status quo at all costs. Rickey was unflinching in his persistence for change, but realized that he wouldn't win the argument on moral grounds alone. Therefore, he created an indirect, economic "Trojan Horse" that baseball owners could not resist. Owners had always known how to look out for their financial self-interests, and talented black players meant winning teams and more people in the stands.


Lessons for Our Labour Day

The Brooklyn Dodgers were National League champions in 1947, eventually losing to the Yankees 5-2 in the deciding game of the World Series. Rickey retired from baseball in 1955 and died of a heart attack ten years later at eighty-three, while being inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He is remembered for developing baseball's "farm system," but much more for breaking baseball's colour barrier and clearing a path for the great leaders who would take up the cause. To put Rickey's era into perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr., was only eighteen when Robinson entered his rookie season.

As we celebrate Labour Day—a visible reminder of the dignity of work and workers—we can benefit greatly by remembering Branch Rickey's efforts to change a team, an industry, a pastime, and a whole society. Social psychology and other disciplines give us powerful tools to both understand and drive transformation for God's greater purposes. As Rickey was known to say, "Luck is the residue of design." There's nothing dishonourable about pairing street smarts with noble intentions for impact in the workplace and in the broader community. Biblical idealism and principled pragmatism represent two sides of the same coin; they can go together like baseball and apple pie.


For further reading:

Cialdini, Robert, B. (2001, October). "Harnessing the science of persuasion." Harvard Business Review, 79(9), 72-79.

Pratkanis, A. R., & Turner, M. E. (1994, July/August). "Mr. Rickey has his way." Across the Board, 31(7), 42-48.

Stafford, T. (2007). Shaking the system: What I learned from the great American reform movements. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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John Terrill John Terrill
John Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business (CIB) at Seattle Pacific University. ... read more »
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