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42 Interview

by Rick Cabral, Editor




Branch Rickey III
Pacific Coast League

He is the namesake of one of baseball's most revered and  beloved men.

And Branch Rickey III* would never say or do anything that might besmirch the platinum brand his grandfather earned through a lifetime in professional baseball.

It is a reputation he inherited and continues to foster in his role as President of the Pacific Coast League.

So, it was with some reluctance that he proffered his opinions on the movie "42" which depicts the epic moment in history when Branch Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson to break the color line in baseball.

Here is an excerpt from our interview this afternoon, hours before he and his family would attend the Hollywood premier of "42" (Branch has seen it twice already).

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What was your reaction when you learned the studio had chosen Harrison Ford to portray your grandfather, Branch Rickey I?

Admitting that he doesn’t have the entertainment industry acumen of the movie’s producers, Rickey concedes “Initially, Harrison Ford was not the kind of actor that I thought would be suitable to capture Branch Rickey.”

Now that you’ve seen the film, in your opinion did Ford capture the mannerisms, speech and overall demeanor of your grandfather?

BRIII: ”Without question. Startling. The stature, bearing, both his facial manners and gestures he uses are very fair portrayals of the man.”

Rickey notes that a rare radio interview with his grandfather has survived. He owns a copy and learned from one of the movie’s co-producers that they had obtained this radio recording and provided it to Ford as background material.

BRIII: “From that you could get a very good variety of emotions and facial expressions, how he (Branch I) reacted to different things. Some of the subtlety. Ford went to school on that. When you see the movie you realize this fellow put in a great deal of effort.”


Branch Rickey III* autographed ball


Did the movie accurately portray the historical aspect of the experience? For instance, did your grandfather reach out in times of Robinson’s personal despair, as shown in the runway and the trainer’s room scenes or were these fictionalized?

BRIII: “The central element was addressed.” However, he prefers not to address the accuracy of specific historic recreations or omissions. One of the movie’s co-producers told him weeks ago, “'Look, we’ve got 150 minutes to tell this story.'

“I’ve been living with this story for my 66 years and I’ve been called upon, so many times I can’t even guess, to give comment and speeches on this topic…far more than I would have wanted to, in fact. There is no way you can capture the magnitude and intricacy of this story in an hour and fifty minutes. You can’t do it in 24 hours and 50 minutes, I would argue. But in that one hour and fifty minutes it captures the spirit and essence of what transpired in that period.”

As a youth I remember seeing the original "The Jackie Robinson Story," starring the man himself. I remember at a young age thinking it was strange that the same person portrayed himself in the movie. Moreover, I thought his on the field action shots were incredible and showcased his energy. Did you enjoy that movie?

BRIII: “I felt it was a terrible portrayal of Jackie Robinson compared to a skilled Hollywood professional in '42'. (Jackie Robinson) didn’t capture the fire and desire in the ballplayer that was Jackie Robinson. I can’t tell you the disappointment I felt that Jackie was not trained to carry out that acting role. My goodness, Chadwick (Boseman) is more Jackie Robinson than you could possibly imagine. And for a movie named '42' I thought that was the heart and soul of what it should be.”

I just realized…you must have seen Jackie Robinson play in person many times!

He takes a deep breath in preparation for answering and replies by asking if we want to hear an anecdote (Of course).

Around 1949, his father Branch Rickey II was employed in the Dodgers’ organization as the supervisor of  Player Development. He had taken his family (wife, two daughters and only son, Branch III) on a trip to visit some farm clubs. On their return to their home in Long Island, BR2 asked if they wanted to stop in Philadelphia and see one game since the Dodgers were in town.

“We stayed at The Hotel Warwick in Philly, which is where the Dodgers were staying. It’s the only time in my life that I candidly stayed at the visiting team hotel” during the time his family had a club affiliation.

The next morning, Branch2 tells his wife he is going down to the hotel lobby to get a haircut and will take along his son. As they arrive in the lobby the father discovers he left his wallet back in the room. BR2 sees a couple of Dodger ballplayers in the lobby. He explains he forgot his wallet and asks if they wouldn’t mind watching the boy for a few minutes while he goes back to the room. They agree.

Eventually a few minutes turns into several, and “I’m driving them crazy, so the two of them take me outside on the front steps with a baseball. To amuse me they bounce the ball on the little wall there alongside the steps, just to keep a 4-year-old entertained.” Finally, 20 minutes later, his father arrives. He apologizes for the long delay and explains he discovered his wallet had slipped behind the dresser, thus it took awhile to find it.

“That’s all it was,” Rickey says in preparation for the punch line. “Those were the first two Brooklyn Dodger players I ever saw in person in my life. The two players who went out with me on the front steps were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.”

He also remembers a month later, his father returned home with a kiddie red phonograph and a 78 record. On the record sleeve was a picture of those same two men—Reese and Robinson—and the record was of them, just talking. “Just a conversation, not another person, just the two of them talking baseball.”

Branch Rickey III notes that even as a 4-year-old he didn’t see any racial aspect to this. “Just the same black player and white player who took me out on the front steps of the Warwick Hotel and played with me.”

Forty years later, someone from the Baseball Hall of Fame heard him tell this story and mailed the actual record to him. “It brought tears to my face.”

“So, Robinson was larger than life, and I got to see him and talk to him on a few occasions. He was a hero to me as a young adult, and he’s still a hero to me today. He’s never ceased. Pee Wee Reese either. The first two players I ever met. That should give you an insight into the movie ('42') I went to see (last month).”

* Branch Barrett Rickey is commonly referred to as "Branch Rickey III" though technically he is the first with that name. His grandfather's name was Wesley Branch Rickey, and his father was Wesley Branch Rickey, Jr.

Uploaded 04/09/13
All Content © Rick Cabral

(except where others own the copyright)