On Becoming a Great Ballplayer

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Apr 21, 2012

“I don’t care if I was a ditch-digger at a dollar a day; I’d want to do my job better than the fellow next to me. I’d want to be the best at whatever I do.”
Branch Rickey

On November 12, 1926 Branch Rickey gave a speech titled “The Greatest Single Thing a Man Can Have” to the Executives Club of Chicago.  He began by telling of Ty Cobb’s base running.  His Cardinals were playing the Detroit Tigers; it was the eleventh inning.  Cobb had drawn a walk, and he made his move to steal second base.

Rickey went on to describe the passion and motivation of Cobb.  As he approached second base, the ball, which was thrown by the catcher, hit the base and bounced into center field.  Cobb kept running to third “without a ghost of a chance to make it.”

But Rickey continued, “I then saw the quickest reflex action I ever saw in my life.  That boy Cobb had reflex centers in his heals; he didn’t have time to telegraph his brain.” 

The third baseman knew of Cobb’s determination and “His willingness to pay the price to get it… had one eye on Cobb’s shiny sliding spikes and the other eye on the ball.”  Cobb started sliding 12 feet in front of the base and when the dust cleared the third baseman missed the ball and as it rolled toward the concrete in front of the grandstand, Cobb scored.  The crowd went wild.

Rickey cried “Interference, Interference. He did not make a slide for the base, but he made a play for the ball.”  But he was ignored.  The umpire said, “Mr. Rickey, listen to me.  Give the boy credit.  He made his own breaks.”  The crowd knew Cobb won the game by himself.

In his speech Rickey reflected on that play and what made a man a distinguished ballplayer.  He said, “Take two men with equal ability; one of them will always stay in mediocrity and another will distinguish himself in the game.  What is the difference?”

After dismissing “luck” as the difference, he explained that “The greatest single menace that a man has is a willingness to alibi his own failures… to excuse himself for his own mistakes.”

“What is the greatest single thing in the character of a great baseball player?  I think it is the desire to be a great baseball player, a desire that dominates him, a desire so strong that it does not admit to anything that runs counter to it, a desire to excel that so confines him to a single purpose that nothing else matters.”

As a baseball player and manager, Branch Rickey did not distinguish himself.  But his real talents blossomed as an off-the-field baseball executive.  He reached baseball’s Hall of Fame for inventing the minor league “farm system” to develop young players.

His greatest achievement, however, took place on August 28, 1945 when he signed Jackie Robinson as the first black professional baseball player to break the color barrier.  And although he was often jeered by opposing baseball players, managers and fans, Robinson went on to become baseball’s first rookie of the year.  Rickey went on to draft the first Hispanic superstar, Roberto Clemente.

Rickey’s practical insights were legendary.  It was he who said, “Baseball is a game of inches.”  Bob Purkey once heard him say, “Never play checkers with a man who carries his own board.”  He also had a deep Christian faith which motivated him throughout his career to never play or manage on a Sunday.

Rickey ended that speech describing this “Dominant desire to excel that simply transcends them into a great spiritual force.  The greatest single thing in the qualification of a great player, a great team, a great man is a desire to reach the objective that admits to no interference anywhere.  That is the greatest thing I know about baseball or anything else.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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