They intended it as a gift, but these 60 years later it’s a time capsule. More than half the players on the roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates got together in the spring of 1953 and gave a Catholic Bible to their boss, general manager Branch Rickey, now known to history as the man who in the 1940s signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated major-league baseball. Rickey was a devout Methodist, and so the gift from his players is curious — a token, apparently, of the sectarian differences between themselves and him. What were they thinking?
To judge from the faux-leather cover and the title page, the Bible is neither rare nor noteworthy: The Holy Trinity Edition (a modified Douay-Challoner-Rheims version), edited by the Reverend John P. O’Connell (1951), had a good run in the United States in the middle of the last century. The copy in question lay hidden in a donation bin at the Sacramento Public Library when, in January of this year, a book repairer noticed the dedication to Rickey, did some quick research, and realized she was holding an item of historical significance.
“Presented to Branch Rickey,” the dedication page reads. “May this good Book be a continued inspiration to one who has ever cherished the word of God. With sincere humility we respectfully dedicate this Holy Catholic Bible.” It’s dated May 7, 1953.
In the lower right-hand corner is the note “see page 1,” a reference to the 30 signatures of “the Catholic players of the Pirates” — actually, 27 players plus two coaches and the first-year field manager, Fred Haney — neatly placed in two columns under the heading “Pirates 1953.” Back then, the maximum size of a major-league roster was 40 men for the first 31 days of the season and then 25 men until September. When they signed their names together on May 7, those 27 players must have known that soon, by May 15, some of them would be cut from the roster, teammates no longer.
“There is a place for mysteries,” Rickey’s grandson, Branch Barrett Rickey, tells me when I ask him what he knows about the gift’s context. Rickey III, as he’s more commonly known, is in his 16th year as president of the triple-A Pacific Coast League. He worked in the front offices of the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds before serving as president of the American Association, the longstanding minor league (established 1902) that was disbanded after the 1997 season; his father, Branch Rickey Jr., was an executive with the Dodgers and Pirates.
For stretches of his youth, Rickey III had “daily interface with the materials in his [grandfather’s] library,” but he doesn’t recall ever coming across the Catholic Bible. With a swipe of Occam’s razor he offers that, for the players, it was “more likely a gift of convenience than a gift of persuasion or narrowness.” It was “something of value to themselves.” To illustrate his conjecture about the genesis of the gift, he sketches a scene where a ballplayer points to a Bible and says to his teammates, “We’re not going to use this. Let’s pass this along to Mr. Rickey.”
It may have begun as an idea casually tossed off, but it must have taken quite a bit of forethought to carry it out. Someone had to decide what to write in the dedication. Someone had to determine which players were Catholic and then arrange for all of them to sign the book. Rickey III relents — he admits that he finds some theories about the exact motives for giving his grandfather a Catholic Bible to be “tantalizing.”