WWI Artifacts and Memories: Branch Rickey
Best known as the man who broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey spent much of his baseball career in St. Louis—as a player, a manager, and in the front office for the St. Louis Browns and later the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey played with the St. Louis Browns (1905 and 1906) and the New York Highlanders (1907). After putting up atrocious numbers, he decided to return to college to pursue a law degree. Rickey attended the University of Michigan, where he managed the school’s baseball team. In 1914, he made his return to the Browns as a front office executive and is credited with signing Hall of Famer George Sisler in 1915. Rickey went on to manage the Browns through the 1916 season.
When the United States went to war in 1917, so did Branch Rickey, much like many other Missourians and those in the major leagues. At age 37, Rickey was too old to serve on the war's front lines. Instead he was encouraged to join the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS). Commissioned in the CWS 1st Gas Regiment, Major Rickey went overseas. The 1st Gas Regiment, headquartered in Chaumont, France, was responsible for launching gas attacks against enemy trenches and laying down smoke screens. The regiment saw action at Saint-Miniel and during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918.
Branch Rickey wasn’t the only future Hall of Famer to serve with the CWS. Among the big leaguers were Captains Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, who served under Rickey in France. For the most part the CWS kept them out of harm’s way. However, in a 1918 training exercise to simulate gassing, both Cobb and Mathewson missed the signal to don their masks and immediately inhaled the dangerous fumes. Mathewson’s exposure to the gas was substantial, which would eventually lead to the development of tuberculosis and his death in 1925. George Sisler also joined the CWS at the urging of Rickey and attended training camp at Camp Humphries, Virginia, but he never went overseas.
After the war, Branch Rickey returned to St. Louis, where he had a short-lived stint with the Browns before he joined crosstown rivals, the Cardinals. He worked as a manager and in the front office of the Cardinals organization from 1919 to 1942 and for a brief stint from 1962 to 1964. During a 1965 ceremony electing him to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Rickey collapsed and went into a coma from which he would never recover, passing away 26 days later; he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
Ty Cobb would go on to play another 10 years before his retirement in 1928; Cobb was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Sisler set a record for the most hits in a single season (257), beating out Cobb’s previous record set in 1911. Sisler’s record would stand for 84 years; he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
—Patrick Allie, World War I Curator