Finding Timeless Advice in the Old ‘Branch Office’

By J.F. McKenna

By talking baseball, Jacques Barzun extended his reputation outside the history profession a generation ago. In 1954, the New York Giants swept our beloved Tribe in four games, confounding the sport’s toughest pitching rotation—Lemon, Wynn and Garcia. That same year, Barzun ensured his place in wise-saying anthologies by linking the national pastime and the national psyche. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” Barzun said, “had better learn baseball.”

While acknowledging that I am certainly venturing outside my talent class, I nonetheless offer a corollary to Barzun’s aphorism: Whoever wants to “put customers in seats” would do well to follow the advice and example of Branch Rickey.

Branch Rickey, you’re saying; why, he’s ancient history—a name linked to the equally ancient Gashouse Gang, guys with nicknames like “Dizzy” and “Ducky” and the earliest days of batting cages and farm teams. OK, you concede, Rickey did break baseball’s race barrier with Jackie Robinson after World War II; but what does a guy, now dead 47 years, have to teach either baseball or business today?

Frankly—plenty, and then some more. But you need an open mind to learn such things. Or as Rickey himself would tell you, “First of all, a man, whether seeking achievement on the athletic field or in business, must want to win. He must feel the thing he is doing is worthwhile; so worthwhile that he is willing to pay the price of success for distinction.”

An Ohio native, Rickey went from a short, undistinguished playing career to become baseball’s first front-office phenom of the 20th century. He worked managerial magic for the St. Louis Browns, that town’s Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and my National League favorite, the Pittsburgh’s Pirates. Red Smith, the sportswriter’s sportswriter for decades, once declared that to call Rickey baseball’s finest man “is to damn with faint praise….If his goal had been the United States Supreme Court instead… he would have been a giant on the bench.”

But enough strewing of laurels. Let’s cherry-pick this Branch for business guidance in this century.

Peter Drucker always preached that there is “only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.” I don’t know if Rickey, a law-school graduate, ever read any of the works of the father of modern management. I do know they were kindred spirits, as illustrated by the following BR quote: “What is the purpose of a ball game? To win.” And winning, of course, translates into filled seats, just as great products and sound service deliver customers.

Innovation then builds on the existing customer base. No one in baseball knew that better in the mid-20th century than Branch Rickey, who was probably best known for giving America the expression “Luck is the residue of design.” Rickey’s signing of Robinson will forever keep the former on the pages of American as well as baseball history, but Rickey’s lesser-known innovations also put him in a league of his own—including the hiring of Allen Roth in 1947.

As related in Branch Rickey’s Little Blue Book, the Canadian hockey statistician was pitching his skills to Rickey, telling baseball’s mahatma why Duke Snider would perform more effectively against selected pitchers and why Pee Wee Reese would perform more efficiently on weekends than on Mondays. Rickey listened, but finally told Roth: “That’s like telling me how many nudges of the nose it would take to push a peanut up Pike’s Peak. Who cares? ”

Rickey, however, was not hidebound when it came to giving a baseball team every edge possible. Within two weeks, Rickey hired baseball’s first statistician.

To talk about business or baseball without talking about talent is impossible. Rickey constantly sought it out and always schemed to make it better. He drafted Elroy Face twice in the minors before the right-hander became the Pirates’ protocloser in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And long before Sandy Koufax entered the Hall of Fame with his 165-87 record for 12 seasons, Rickey declared that the lefty “comes nearest to perfection as anyone in either major league.”

For Rickey, improvement was an all-day, everyday task. “President Abraham Lincoln,” he once observed, “sat in his chair almost all the time, and there was no more industrious man than he. Industry is not the expenditure of shoe leather. It is having ideas—ideas about the job you hold, how to improve it and yourself. ”

For the record, Rickey was not perfect. In particular, he had a widespread reputation for tightfistedness. Smith, writing in a 1950 column, noted that Rickey was “constitutionally unable to pass up a chance to haggle in any deal.”

“Yet put him to work on a baseball problem, or a social or political problem for that matter,” Smith added, “and his thinking is as direct as a right cross, his arguments brilliant, his actions unhesitating.”

In short, the perfect manager for 2012.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. A passable sportswriter in his newspaper youth, McKenna holds “dual citizenship” as an Indians and a Pirates fan. He treasures his Elroy Face autograph and his copy of a 1948 World Series program. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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