What Makes A Baseball Player Great?

Branch Rickey was a former baseball player for the St. Louis Browns. Although he was not a hall of fame player, Branch was a General Manager who had an eye for talent, was known for creating the minor league farm system, and for signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The speech below tells a story about Ty Cobb and transforms into a universal example that all can take something from in their everyday lives.

Well, when the ball was finally thrown to second base, it hit in front of the bag and bounced over Levan’s head. Cobb came down, touched second base, and angularly went on towards third without a ghost of a chance to make it. The third baseman, knowing the abandonment of that fellow Cobb, and his slide-knowing that, when he set out voluntarily to get an objective, he was willing to pay the price to get it-having this knowledge in his head, had one eye on Cobb’s shiny spikes and the other eye on the ball.

I then saw the quickest reflex action I ever saw in my life. That boy Cobb had reflex centers in his heels; he did not have time to telegraph his brain. He slid twelve feet in front of third base; and when the dust had cleared away, the ball had fallen out of the hands of the third baseman and was going over toward the concrete in front of the grandstand-and before we could get that ball, he scored. I saw the crowd tumbling out from every place.

I said to the umpire, “Interference, interference, Tom, at third base. He did not make a slide for the base, but he made a play for the ball.”

He paid no attention to me-they have a habit of doing that. I followed him and said, “Tom, listen to me!”

“Mr. Rickey,” he said then, “listen to me. Give the boy credit. He made his own breaks.”

Oh, I tell you as I went down towards the clubhouse, with the crowd joshing me and guying us, I thought to myself, as I passed the Detroit players, I did not hear a man saying, “See what luck did for us today. Old Billiken was on our side.” I heard everybody saying, “He is a great player. He won the game by himself.”

As I came to my locker and listened to the remarks about the game, I commenced to ask myself what it was that made a man a distinguished ballplayer. 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?

The more we compress and confine the element of luck-luck has its place in games; it is in the English language; it is in the dictionary, and we ought to keep it there-and put it in a small area, just to that extent do you enlarge the area for the exercise of a man’s own functions in controlling his workings, his destinies, and his game.

The more that a man exercises himself and asserts his own influence over his work, the less the part that luck plays. It is true in baseball that the greatest single menace that a man has is a willingness to alibi his own failures; the greatest menace to a man’s success in business, I think, sometimes is a perfect willingness to excuse himself for his own mistakes.

What is the greatest single thing in the character of a successful enterprise, in the character of a boy, 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 that is so strong that it does not admit of anything that runs him, a desire that is so strong that it does not admit of anything that runs counter to it, a desire to excel that so confines him to a single purpose that nothing else matters.

That thing makes men come in at night, that makes men have good health, that makes men change their bad technique to good technique, that makes capacity and ability in men. That makes a team with 80 percent possibility come from 60 to 70 percent, that makes them approach their possibility; and with a 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, or a great man is a desire to reach the objective that admits of no interference anywhere. That is the greatest thing I know about baseball or anything else.

“Cobb lived off the field as though he wished to live forever. He lived on the field as though it was his last day.”

Branch Rickey

Cliff Notes:

  • The speech was given on November 12, 1926 to the Executives Club of Chicago. The speech was entitled “The Greatest Single Thing a Man Can Have.Although given and delivered in a different era, the truths still have merit.
  • As Branch invented the Minor League system for the Cardinals, felt the head line picture proved fitting.