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Jackie Robinson's Classic Interview with Branch Rickey (excerpted from Chapter 11 of Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed)

by Tony Medley

In the late nineteenth century Adrian “Cap” Anson was the premier baseball player in the National League. He batted more than .400 and fielded flawlessly. But one thing bugged Anson, and in 1888 he did something about it.

Anson organized a group of fellow baseball players and demanded that African Americans be prohibited from playing in the National League. Because of his prestige and the tenor of the times, an unwritten law was maintained, and thereafter no African American’s name graced the box scores of the major leagues, despite such standout players as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and James “Cool Papa” Bell.

In 1945 a grizzled baseball executive had a plan. Branch Rickey was general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he told his scout, Clyde Sukeforth, to go to Chicago, check out a player’s arm, and, if satisfied that his arm was sound, bring him to Brooklyn for an interview.

Sukeforth returned a few days later, and he and Jackie Robinson entered Rickey’s office. Sukeforth told Rickey that he hadn’t seen Robinson’s arm but had brought him in for Ricky to interview anyway.

After introductions, Rickey subjected Robinson to intense study. No one said a word as Rickey stared at Robinson for several minutes. Finally, Rickey told Robinson that for years he had been looking for a great black baseball player, that he had a feeling that Robinson was his man. But he said that he needed someone who was more than a great athlete; he needed someone who could take insults and abuse and have the courage not to fight back. He described the terrible abuse that Robinson would have to take from everyone, fellow players, fans, sportswriters, even his own teammates. But Rickey said if the first black man to play baseball in the National League in fifty years fought back, he’d set the cause back twenty years.

When Rickey was through, he waited for Robinson’s response. But Robinson didn’t say anything. For five minutes the room was enmeshed in silence as Robinson thought and Rickey waited. Sukeforth said that Rickey was immensely impressed that Robinson did not give a quick answer.

Finally, Robinson told Rickey that he had no doubts about his ability to play baseball in the National League but that that judgment would be up to Rickey. He promised that if Rickey was willing to take the risk, there would not be any incident. Thus ended a classic interview, one that changed not only the complexion of the sporting world but the opportunities of African Americans in all professions.

Jackie Robinson was a man of power, as was Branch Rickey. Their initial meeting emphasizes the manifestation of power through silence. Each used silence, but in a different way and with different purposes.

When they first met, Rickey said nothing, staring at Robinson for several minutes. Rickey was applying stress before he uttered a word. Robinson responded by withstanding the scrutiny with silence and confidence. It was Rickey’s move. Had Robinson fidgeted or shown discomfort, Rickey’s impression would probably have been less favorable. Rickey had been looking for forty years to break the color line. A few more years wouldn’t matter. He had to have the man who could stand the tension under which he would be put. He had to have a man of power and restraint.

The Thinking Silence

After Rickey had put the facts before Robinson, Robinson was silent. He had the confidence in himself to think the problem through, and he wasn’t intimidated by the powerful man across the desk from him. The room was filled with silence for five minutes. Someone who is uncomfortable with himself, or is intimidated, or lacks confidence, will find five minutes of silence in the same room with a man of power and decision an eternity. But Robinson thought the problem through. He didn’t rush out with a rapid acceptance, which could have been his undoing. He thus showed Rickey that he had the confidence in himself to consider the proposition as something that could expose him to great risk and that he wasn’t going to jump at an opportunity without considering the consequences.

Each of these men conveyed his power to the other through silence. Although Rickey used silence as a tool, Robinson was not trained in interviewing and was reacting from within. His silence was a genuine indication of the man inside.