How did the Rocky Mountain state of Idaho, historically one of the reddest of red states in the political milieu, become entwined with the careers of two country boys from the Midwest? These two personalities were Walter Johnson and Branch Rickey, who rose to the pinnacle of professional baseball's hierarchy. It is appropriate to present a thumbnail sketch of early Idaho history to set the stage for this fascinating but abbreviated saga. It all began during the Civil War, eighteen years after Alexander Cartwright organized a semblance of a baseball match at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.1
On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, certainly the greatest of Republican presidents if not all presidents, signed the Organic Act establishing the Idaho Territory, which included in addition to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.2 In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison, near the bottom of the barrel of Republican presidents, declared Idaho the 43rd state of the union, then with a population of 84,000.3 In 1903, popular President "Teddy" Roosevelt visited the state in celebration of "Roosevelt Day".
Just around the corner, Boise, the capital, and a neighboring town of Caldwell, became focal points of national attention. On December 30, 1905, former Democrat governor, Frank Steunenberg was murdered by a radical element of the Wobblies in Caldwell. The ensuing trail brought "heavy hitters" (to keep in sync with a baseball treatise) to Boise. Included were the eminent Clarence Darrow, later of Scopes Trial fame as well as the infamous Leopold-Loeb murder, and Republican William E. Borah, a trial lawyer soon to become one of Idaho's two best known senators. Ethel Barrymore was in town to perform on stage. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs threatened a general strike should the World Federation Workers be convicted. The men were exonerated and Albert Horsley (alias Harry Orchard) confessed to the killing.4
Now what about the term 'seven come eleven'? By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Americans had truly adopted baseball as the national pastime. Darrow, a baseball fanatic, poignantly expressed his feelings for the game. "The 'one unalloyed joy' in my life was baseball. I have snatched my share of joys from the grudging hand of Fate as I have jogged along," he wrote, "but never has life held for me anything quite so entrancing as baseball."5
Little did the erudite public defender realize that he would witness the beginning of Johnson's heroic efforts on the mound. The lanky right-hander arrived in Idaho in a circuitous manner. Johnson, of English heritage, was born near Humbolt, Kansas in 1887.6 His family moved to Olinda, California, 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles in 1902. Walter's father Frank worked as a teamster and loader for the Santa Fe Oil Company. This company was in partnership with Edward L. Doheny, soon to become an oil baron who would go on to a certain rancid fame as instigator of the Teapot Dome Scandal.7
At the same time, friends began to realize that Johnson was unusually talented as a baseball player, regardless of the position he played. After pitching and playing several positions for Fullerton High School and the local town team called the Olinda Oil Wells, Johnson got what he thought was his big break. A former teammate, then with the Tacoma Tigers of the Northwestern League, recommended Johnson for a vacant pitching berth. But San Francisco had just been overwhelmed by a devastating earthquake in April 1906.8 The Pacific Coast League, which had boasted San Francisco as its flagship team seemed doomed. Expecting to have his pick of the disbanding players, Mike Lynch, Tacoma manager, figured he no longer needed the youngster from Olinda. In releasing Johnson, the manager told him he had no future as a pitcher, suggesting he try the outfield. This gratuitous advice haunted Lynch for the rest of his baseball days.9
Joe Burke, the original scout who latched on to "Kid" or "Barney", as Johnson was called in the early days of his career, remembered that the young prospect was "the awkardest fellow on the team. Many a time I have seen Walt pitch a superb game, and along toward the last a little bunt would come rolling down to him gently, like a Zephyr from the western sea. Walt would start to get it, his feet were sure to tangle, and [the lanky youngster] was sure to fall down on the ground. Tall and angular, his feet and hands were abnormally big, out of proportion with the rest of him." He afterwards grew up to his extremities. Burke concluded that "while [Johnson] handled himself like a barnyard animal in fielding and baserunning, he was always a good batter and he sure could pitch."10
Johnson's pitching style—a short 'windmill' windup in which he rotated his arm in a circle while standing straight up on the mound, then swept the arm behind his back as far as it would go before whipping it forward in a smooth sidearm—underarm arc—was unique unto him—his signature. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called it "the finest motion in the game", for its simplicity and grace. Despite his effectiveness, it would be years before older players stopped trying to persuade him to change his delivery. It would never do in 'fast company', they told him.11
The Kansas native was devastated by his dismissal from the Tacoma team. A thousand miles from home with only a week's pay of forty dollars in his pocket, the nineteen year old was desperate. Rescue came in a telegram from another former Olinda teammate. Clair Head, an infielder who had caught on with the Weiser Kids in Idaho, urged Johnson to join him.6
The early 1900s was the heyday of 'town ball', an era when nearly every community in the country that could boast a dusty pasture and a chicken wire backstop managed to field its own team. A winning team was the best advertisement for investment and emigration. If a town played good ball and supported its team with brio, the reasoning went, it must be a 'wide-awake hustling place'.9 For many towns, fiercely competing with neighboring villages for mercantile supremacy, baseball was often a sublimation of instinct for outright warfare—or as Mark Twain so eloquently described it, "the visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century."14
Weiser, a hotbed of baseball, is located near the western border of Idaho, twelve miles north of Payette, the birth place of baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. Larry Jackson, Vernon Law, and son Vance Law grew up and began their professional baseball careers in nearby Nampa and Boise. Andy Carey played for the Weiser Prospectors, a team that was organized after the Weiser Kids. The main source of subsistence was farming, mining, and lumbering. Darrow was delighted to learn that in 1907, Boise, where he was located for the 'Big Bill' Haywood trial, had joined the new semi-pro Idaho State League, made up of eight towns in the Snake River Valley and linked by the Oregon Short Line and Pacific and Idaho Northern railroads.
The barrister likely enjoyed a chuckle when learning of the nicknames for the town ball clubs: the Boise Senators, the Caldwell Countyseaters, the Payette Melon Eaters, the Weiser Kids, the Nampa Beetdiggers, the Emmett Prune Pickers (where Bill Buckner lives), the Mountain Home Dudes, and the Huntington (Oregon) Railroaders.15 Games drew enthusiastic crowds of 1,500-5,000 fans to such parks as the beautiful Riverside Park along the Boise River about one-half mile from the author's home in Boise.
Without a doubt, Johnson was a 'big hit' in this league. Big and husky, green and unaware of the fine points of the game, he dominated hitters with a fast ball combined with control, durability, and an unorthodox delivery. During his short season (1906) with the Kids, Johnson hurled 77 consecutive scoreless innings, struck out nearly two hitters an inning, all for $150 a month. During the week, he did clerical and promotional chores for the Bell Telephone Company.6
Finally scouts and baseball aficionados began to send word back to major league teams that there was a young pitching phenom in western Idaho. I am sorry to report that the then Cleveland Naps, along with two other teams showed an interest in Johnson, but did not follow up on the leads they received. The Nationals did eventually follow up, including then manager 'Pongo Joe' Cantillon. A tipster, likely Joe Shea, who had played ball in the west, sent the manager a letter as follows: "You better come out here and get this pitcher. He throws a ball so fast nobody can see it and he strikes out everybody . . . . He knows where he's throwing because if he didn't there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho."17 His comments were ignored.
This scenario brings to mind a game in 1915 when Johnson was pitching to Ray Chapman of the now Cleveland Indians, the only major leaguer to be killed by a pitched ball. Chapman took the first pitch and then another blurred streak of white hissed past Chapman's cocked but motionless bat and pounded into the mitt of catcher Eddie Ainsworth. "Strike two," intoned umpire Billy Evans. Chapman tossed the bat away and started toward the dugout, "That's only strike two," yelled Evans. Chapman didn't even break stride as he said to Evans over his shoulder, "I know it. You can have the next one. It won't do me any good."15
Finally 'Pongo Joe' acted after receiving more telegrams telling him of Johnson's attributes. He sent Cliff Blankenship, a second string catcher with a broken finger, west to entice Johnson to return with him to Washington. Initially the fireballer rejected Blankenship's offer. Johnson replied he was happy in Weiser and he wasn't sure he was ready for the likes of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Nap Lajoie. Johnson later said he was suspicious of those city fellows. "Aren't you glad to get a chance in the east?" Blankenship asked. He'd been east, Johnson replied. "With what team?" the catcher inquired. "No team," Johnson responded, "I was born in Kansas."19
After more persuasion, Johnson finally relented and signed for $350 a month, a $100 bonus, and train fare east. 'The Big Train' finished the season with Weiser before departing for Washington on July 22, 1907, and eventually Cooperstown. A group of Weiser fans had tried to persuade Johnson to stay, offering to set him up with a cigar store in the town square. He thanked them sincerely but allowed as the Washington offer would mean more to him in the future. "You know how you are at 19," Johnson explained later. "You want to see things."20 The rest is history. The flame thrower not only saw things but he did things which led to his induction into the Hall of Fame with the first group to be selected. And what about his stay at Weiser? Reminiscing in 1924, Johnson recalled, "I've seen a lot of towns steamed up over baseball," and added, "but the place that went craziest over the game was Weiser, Idaho, where I first earned money for pitching."9
Idaho was also losing a member of the "red state" bandwagon. Johnson appeared on the political scene in 1940. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in Maryland's 6th District. Although he introduced Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie in Coffeyville, Kansas, during the campaign, Johnson lost to William Byron who captured important political endorsements necessary to win.
Johnson died of cancer in December 1946 at the age of 59, the same day journalist Damon Runyan passed away. Johnson's mother Minnie died the following year at the age of 100.
Fast forward to "Seven Come Eleven", that is 1911, and the early trials and tribulations of Wesley Branch Rickey. The President at that time was 300-pound William Howard Taft, a baseball devotee whose childhood home Cincinnati, was only 75 miles west of Stockdale along the Ohio River where Rickey was born. After college, Rickey applied to the University of Michigan Law School. This was a terrible mistake on Rickey's part. He had received his undergraduate degree at Ohio Wesleyan College in Delaware, twenty-five miles north of Columbus where he was an above average athlete. He could have attended The Ohio State University Law School, saved out-of-state tuition, and enhanced his vita.
Rickey was admitted to the University of Michigan Law School which was not a surprise. The notorious Fielding H. Yost was football coach, and under his aegis nearly anyone could be admitted to the University, at least to play football. In reality, Rickey was a very good student, a hard driving individual. The University had an outstanding law school. But there was a question whether he could physically attend law school. He had recently been released from Adirondack Care Sanatorium at Saranac Lake in upstate New York where he was recovering from tuberculosis. Discharged with a warning that his health was still vulnerable, Rickey arrived at Ann Arbor in the fall of 1909. His wife Jane stayed for several months with family in Ohio.
The young graduate student took several classes but he was not happy with himself. In a remarkable letter to his parents of January 13, 1910, he wrote:
Rickey's fortunes turned for the better in 1911, when he was appointed baseball coach for the University of Michigan. There was no affirmative action policy at that time. His team did reasonably well, but baseball was secondary to "the jealous mistress", that is, pursuit of his law degree. He received his degree on June 26, 1911. The happy Rickey, armed with his degree, decided to form a law firm with Frank B. Ebbert and Howard "Jim" Crow, two fraternity brothers from Ohio Wesleyan College. This plan evolved when the three fraternity brothers attended a biannual convention of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity in Chicago in August 1911.23
Now thirty years old, Rickey and his cohorts decided to settle in Boise, Idaho, capital of the state with a population of 17,000. The elevation is 2800 feet. Rickey's still delicate health required him to live in a mountainous and dry climate. Darrow, describing his initial impression of Boise in 1906, gave evidence why the young men may have chosen this western town. "The fields were fresh and green, the orchards were luxuriant, the town [was] resplendent with lawns and flowers, shrubs and trees. The houses were neat and up to date....Boise had a pride in its town and people and culture and could rightly be called the Athens of the sage-brush."5
Boise seemed immensely suitable to the three young men; they thought the capital city was on the verge of an economic boom. The Union Pacific Railroad was rumored to be building a spur through the town. Unfortunately that plan was tabled until 1925.4 In the interim, the Oregon Short Line from nearby Nampa helped by providing a secondary rail connection to the outside world. Then too, Idaho's most famous personality, lawyer and Senator William E. Borah, was so preoccupied with Washington political life that the fledgling lawyers hoped to pick up some of the business he hadn't time to handle.
At this point there is some discrepancy about Rickey's stay in Boise. Murray Polner, in his Rickey biography, wrote that he and his wife Jane bought "a little place on a mountainside and [Rickey] slept practically outdoors trying to get well."26 That statement conflicts with city directory information that records his address as 1602 West Washington Street which was and is as flat as a parking lot. In fact, it is presently a parking lot for Albertson's grocery store.27
Secondly, a local reporter for the Idaho Statesman reported that Rickey and his partner(s) passed the bar exam in the summer of 1911.28 My research indicates that Rickey was admitted to the bar on September 19, 1911, and Howard M. Crow was admitted on December 16, 1911.29 There is no record of admission for Frank B. Ebbert. These dates of admission likely make sense, for it takes several weeks or months after graduation to prepare for and complete the bar exam. The restrictions for practicing law were likely more lax at the turn of the twentieth century.
Whatever the case, the three neophyte lawyers hung their shingle at the Idaho Building in the heart of Boise, the most prestigious building in this small town. The rent was $17.50 per month.30 But the railroad and clients never came. Rickey had only one case, serving as public defender for a hirsute and egregious outlaw who had been charged with many crimes, and didn't even want an attorney. The criminal spat at Rickey's feet when he met him at the local jail and Rickey might well have flashed back to his first surly students in a rural setting at Turkey Creek School in southern Ohio where he taught prior to going to college. "I never knew a man could be so guilty of so many crimes," Rickey reflected about his one and only client in Idaho.31
Rickey was attending a business lunch at the Union League Club in New York City some forty-five years later when a tall elderly man paused at his table and asked gruffly, "Which one of you is Branch Rickey?" Somewhat startled, Rickey admitted the responsibility. A large hand was thrust before him. "I'm Judge Davis of Boise, Idaho. Just wanted to shake your hand. I heard your first case and you lost it. Haw—haw—haw!" "I sure did lose it," Rickey sighed after the greeter had left. "Nowhere in my client's makeup was there a shred of innocence."
The Red State tradition was carried on by Rickey, possibly to a lesser degree as he and Ebbert supported Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose Party candidate, and Crow stuck with incumbent Mr. Taft in the upcoming 1912 election.
Rickey and his wife returned to Michigan in early 1912 where the baseball coaching position remained open and he took over the reins for a second year. It was a fortuitous decision for the Ohio native because he would have the opportunity to coach another Ohioan and future Hall of Famer, the Sizzler, better know as George Sisler. Sisler's subsequent Hall of Fame career reinforced sportswriter Jim Murray's observation that Rickey "could spot baseball talent from the window of a moving train."
As Rickey's last season as baseball coach ended at Ann Arbor (1913), the Michigan Daily paid him a warm tribute: "[He] leaves with a sterling record behind him, and a host of friends to remember him. ... Above all he taught clean ball, gentlemanly tactics, and clean living. A gentleman, true sportsman, and a man, he will long be remembered by those who love and help Michigan athletics."
In 1915, Rickey, then associated with the St. Louis Browns, was deeply moved by owner Robert Hedges' parting remarks as he made ready to sell the team to Phil Ball, "The biggest danger in baseball is the presence of so much money behind certain clubs." He warned, "There are in both . . . leagues men who can buy winners. If [owners] allow that ability to run to extremes, the game will suffer greatly. The weak fellows have no chance against men who can bid up to the skies for players." How prophetic!
For the most part, the remaining accomplishments of these two Hall of Famers are well known. Johnson is widely acclaimed as the greatest major league pitcher of all time, for which I heartily agree. He holds dozens of records, had an impeccable personality as a player, and one record that to me is most noteworthy—110 shutouts, 20 more than runner-up Grover Cleveland Alexander. The right-hander lost 65 times when the Nationals were shut out, including 26 1-0 games. Washington finished sixth or below in eight of the 20 seasons Johnson twirled for them.
Branch Rickey's baseball career is equally impressive. He was a major league player, manager, and general manager. Rickey is best known for his overall administrative skills, development of an outstanding farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals and his far-reaching decision to open the gate to integration of baseball with the introduction of Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947 (the same year the armed forces were integrated). The Idaho Bar was no doubt the long term loser, for Rickey never returned to the practice of law.
It is ironic that these two behemoths of the baseball world began their professional careers in a thinly populated state still living under the code of the "Wild, Wild West". It is even more remarkable that they settled in the same locales at approximately the same time. Big trains were opening the west to a new way of life. 'The Big Train' was honing his pitching skills for the baseball world to marvel. Concurrently the flame thrower whetted the appetites of local fans to support town ball.
Branch Rickey (and earlier Teddy Roosevelt) came west to revitalize their bodies and souls and to overcome personal illness and tragedy. They returned to a burgeoning and changing environment where America's 'melting pot' eventually spilled over into major league baseball. After World War II and decade by decade thereafter, increasing numbers of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and a few Aussies have displayed their talents in new hallowed shrines of our national pastime. At the same time, the game encountered serious ills, not necessarily related to a new mix of players, notably continued excessive greed by owners and later players, failure of a workable parity plan, including a wretched and unfair revised playing schedule, and player abuse of their bodies with use of powerful new and illegal drugs. Johnson and Rickey, the best of the best, did not besmirch their reputations and remain two immortal giants among mortal men in the panorama of baseball history.
© James E. Odenkirk
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James E. Odenkirk was chairperson of the ASU Physical Education Department (1967-1982). The program was ranked as one of the best in the US during his tenure. He earned a Master's Degree in History at ASU and completed course work for a doctorate in American History at NAU. He taught American History and Sports History for twenty years at ASU, NAU, Boise State University, and the College of Idaho. He is the author of two books and over fifty published refereed articles, and was director of a nationally-recognized baseball conference in 1998. He was recipient of the highest meritorious award given by the North American Society of Sports Historians in May 2012 at Berkeley, California. Odenkirk and his wife Benita reside in Chandler, Arizona, and Boise, Idaho.