Before Jackie Robinson…

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

                

REA spring auction lot description preview: 

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1904 Ohio Wesleyan Baseball Large-Format Team Photograph including Branch Rickey and Black Ballplayer

Remarkable and extremely historically significant original display photograph capturing the members of the 1904 Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, including coach Branch Rickey and Charles Thomas, a black ballplayer. This is one of only several known original examples of this iconic photograph, with another example having been prominently featured in both Ken Burns’ award-winning documentary Baseball, and its companion book Baseball - An Illustrated History. The offered photo is not only the finest example we have ever seen, but one with a provenance that originates with the school as well. This extraordinary original display photo only recently surfaced at a small Columbus, Ohio auction of the estate of a man who was a groundskeeper at Ohio Wesleyan many years ago. The formal studio photo, which offers outstanding clarity, measures 16.25 x 11.25 inches and pictures thirteen members of the club in a traditional team pose. Rickey, who was just twenty-three years old at the time, is pictured standing to the far right, while Charles Thomas, the team’s catcher, is pictured standing in the center. A placard at the feet of the players reads “Champions of Ohio/1904,” while the lettering at the top of the mount further acknowledges the club’s achievement that year: “Ohio Conference Champions.” Two vintage typewritten slips of paper have been affixed to the photo. The first (4 x 1.5 inches), which identifies all of the pictured individuals by name, has been neatly placed in the lower right corner. The second, which lists the scores for each game during the 1904 season, is affixed to the photo’s right border, but is positioned in such a manner that it occupies equal space on both the photo and mount.

Few baseball photos have as significant a story to tell as does this one. Branch Rickey’s role in the breaking of baseball’s long-standing color barrier in 1947 is universally recognized and well documented. What is less well known, however, is that the seeds of his “Great Experiment” were sown during his college coaching days at Ohio Wesleyan in the early 1900s. At that time, Rickey’s club included an extremely talented black catcher by the name of Charles Thomas. As expected, Thomas often encountered many forms of racism during the team’s travels. Some schools refused to take the field against him. Hotels and restaurants often denied him service. One such incident, in the spring of 1903, haunted Rickey for the rest of his life. During a trip to South Bend, to play Notre Dame, Rickey encountered trouble as he attempted to check his team into the Oliver Hotel. The clerk on duty informed Rickey that he and his team were welcome to stay at the hotel, with the exception of Thomas. What happened next is chronicled in Ken Burns’ book:

Thomas, humiliated, suggested that he just quietly return to Ohio Wesleyan and forget about playing. Rickey wouldn’t hear of it. He talked the hotel manager into letting him take the boy to his own room until a suitable room could be found for him elsewhere, then sent for a cot for Thomas. When the manager protested, Rickey threatened to take his whole team elsewhere if he didn’t get it right away. The manager backed down. Many years later, Rickey remembered what happened after he sent for the team captain to come to his room and talk over strategy for the big game: Tommy stood in the corner, tense and brooding and in silence. I asked him to sit in a chair and relax. Instead, he sat on the end of the cot, his huge shoulders hunched and his large hands clasped between his knees. I tried to talk to the captain, but I couldn’t take my gaze from Tommy. Tears welled, …spilled down his black face and splashed to the floor. Then his shoulders heaved convulsively and he rubbed one great hand over the other with all the power of his body, muttering, ‘Black skin,…black skin. If I could only make ‘em white.’ He kept rubbing and rubbing as though he would remove the blackness by sheer friction.” Rickey did his best to reassure Thomas, but “whatever mark that incident left on the black boy,” he said many years later, “it was no more indelible than the impression made on me.” The memory never left him and the conviction slowly grew that he would someday try and see it that such things never happened again.

Despite Rickey’s promise to himself, it would be decades before he was finally in a position to implement integration in baseball. In 1944, after becoming president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey confided to the club’s radio announcer, Red Barber, “For 41 years, I have heard that young man [Charles Thomas] crying. Now, I am going to do something about it. . . . I am going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers.” Three years later Rickey finally made good on his word when he signed Jackie  Robinson, thereby ending baseball’s long-standing color barrier. Rickey enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Thomas, who become a dentist, and years later Thomas recalled Rickey’s kindness: “From the very first day I entered Ohio Wesleyan University, Branch Rickey took special interest in my welfare. As the first Negro player on any of its teams, some of the fellows didn’t welcome me too kindly, though there was no open opposition. But, I always felt that Mr. Rickey set them straight. During the three years that I was at Ohio Wesleyan, no man could have been treated better. When we went on trips, Mr. Rickey was the first one to see if I was welcome in the hotel where we were to stop. On several occasions, he talked the management into allowing me to occupy a double room with him and his roommate, Barney Russell.”

The story of Rickey and Thomas was well known to Jackie Robinson, and in his autobiography (Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, with Wendell Smith, 1948.) he acknowledges that Rickey’s treatment of Thomas weighed heavily in his decision to sign with the Dodgers: “When I heard that story, I gathered new hope. If forty-five years ago Mr. Rickey believed that a man deserved fair treatment regardless of his race or color, there was no reason to believe he changed. The more I learned about Branch Rickey, the more pleased I was that I was playing ball for him, was a part of his organization, and I wanted to show him I was capable of handling any situation into which he might drop me. I had never known a man like him before. Like [Clyde] Sukeforth [a Dodgers scout], I found myself admiring him, glad to be around him, and ready to do whatever he wanted me to do.”

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is one of the most historically important events not just in baseball, but in American history, as it set the stage for the many advances in racial equality that soon followed. This spectacular photo documents the impetus for that monumental change and is, to the best of our knowledge, the only image we have today picturing Rickey and Thomas together during their years at Wesleyan. While value is very subjective and this photo may sell for more or less, the only other example of this photo we have ever seen at a major sports auction, which was in lesser condition, sold for $16,000 in 2007. The photo displays a few minor abrasions and/or scratches that do not in any way detract from its overall Excellent appearance. The original brown matting (19.75 x 13.5 inches) displays individual tack holes in each upper corner and in the center of the bottom border, as well as minor edge wear. Reserve $2,500. Estimate (open).



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