April 15, 2013
In the long history of major league baseball, probably no executive cast a bigger shadow than Branch Rickey, JD '11.
He practically invented Ladies' Day—which integrated an almost entirely male domain—spring training, and baseball's minor league system. Former St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial said, "An all-star team of our top farm clubs probably could have finished third behind the Cardinals and Dodgers. This was Branch Rickey's masterpiece."
Of course, Rickey also scouted and signed Jackie Robinson to break baseball's color barrier, once and for all. (It was April 15, 1947 when Robinson first stepped into the batter's box at Ebbets Field wearing No. 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
But Fred Wilpon, BA '58, first knew Rickey as the man walking past his sandlot games, then his minor league's commissioner, his wife's boss, and finally a good friend and mentor.
Wilpon grew up in Brooklyn, a serious student and solid ballplayer, who met Rickey a few times when the man they called "The Mahatma" stopped by on his way to Ebbets Field to catch an inning or two of their pickup games.
Wilpon's best friend, then and now, is a man named Sandy Koufax, who turned out to be a pretty good ball player, himself—arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher the game has ever seen. No less a player than Willie Mays once said, "I knew every pitch he was going to throw and still I couldn't hit him."
It was Rickey who signed Wilpon's best friend to the Dodgers.
Years earlier, in 1921, it was Rickey who urged Ray Fisher to leave the major leagues to become Michigan's baseball coach, a position Fisher held for 38 years, winning 15 Big Ten titles and a College World Series. It was just another one of Rickey's moves that affected Wilpon when he signed on to pitch for the Wolverines in 1954.
"Coach Fisher was really a first-class gentleman," Wilpon recalls. "He knew the game well, but he really understood what a student-athlete was. He really got it. He prepared the players to go further if he could, but he made sure you graduated, and had a future beyond baseball. That was the idea."
Coach Fisher walked the walk when Wilpon injured his left arm his freshman year. Although Wilpon couldn't pitch, Fisher insisted he stay on the team his sophomore year. The next year, Fisher handed him a letter to take to the admissions office. Wilpon was confused when the admissions officer looked at the letter and reported he had just been given a "grant-in-aid."
"I had no idea what that was," Wilpon admits. "I thought it was a loan I'd have to pay back. It was a scholarship!"
Fisher's generosity allowed Wilpon to finish his degree in 1958, while working as a waiter at a sorority house. And that, in turn, allowed Wilpon to meet Judy Kessler, BA '58, his future wife.
But Branch Rickey was not finished criss-crossing their lives.
After college, Judy wasn't thrilled with her first job, so she asked her new husband to keep an eye out for her. Wilpon wisely did one better, taking the initiative to walk into the front office of the Continental League—run by none other than Branch Rickey.
"I went up to his receptionist, Margaret Regetz. I told her my name, and that I was a Michigan graduate—and I said it all in a loud enough voice, hoping Rickey would hear me in the office behind her."
Sure enough, Rickey overheard the young man and bellowed, "I remember that boy! Send Freddy in!"
By the time "Freddy" left Rickey's office, he had secured a job for his wife—working for the man himself.
That opened a new chapter in the Wilpons' relationship with Rickey and his wife. The young couple was often invited for long visits at the Rickeys' home.
"He was a very unique man," Wilpon remembers. "Very pious, but he never imposed that on anyone. He got along with people, but he stuck to his opinions, and he tried to convince others of those opinions.
"He sort of reminded me, when I was young, of Winston Churchill. I admired him greatly."
"He was also very erudite, and a very creative thinker. Of course he had that bow tie and those horn-rimmed glasses. He looked very professorial, and sounded like a professor, too.
"But he was not only good at baseball, he was good at business. He was focused not just on the dream, but how to accomplish that dream. He sort of reminded me, when I was young, of Winston Churchill. I admired him greatly, and read everything I could about his life."
Wilpon learned his lessons well, eventually following his mentor into their shared passion: Baseball. In 1980, after gaining a one-percent stake in the New York Mets—who replaced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the hearts of New York Yankee haters—the Wilpons increased their stake in the team until they had gained complete control of the franchise by 2002.
That allowed them to plan the team's new stadium, Citi Field; its facade is an homage to Ebbets Field.
It is the Wilpons' biggest ballpark, but not their dearest. In 2008, Michigan dedicated the Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex, while keeping Ray L. Fisher's name on the ballpark itself.
"We've had a good life," Wilpon says. "It's amazing what the University has done for so many millions of people.
"Outside of my parents, nothing in my life had more influence on me than Michigan did, and Judy feels the same way.
"I will never forget that."
Branch Rickey would be proud.
—John U. Bacon