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Branch Rickey, in suit, surrounded by his Michgan varsity baseball team

42 Generates New Interest in Rickey—Just As His Descendant Graduates MLaw

By John Masson
May 15, 2013

With the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 still clocking in among top-grossing movies five weeks into its run, it was only timely for the topic of 1911 Michigan Law grad Branch Rickey—the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed Robinson to the big league contract that broke the color barrier—to come up during this weekend's Senior Day celebration.

What may have come as a surprise to some was the presence of Rickey's great-grandson, Alex Jakle, among the gowned and hooded members of Michigan Law's 2013 graduating class. Jakle is earning dual degrees from his great-grandfather's alma mater—a JD, and a PhD in political science.Alexander Jakle on Senior Day

For the California native, the mention of Rickey's legacy by Michigan Law Dean Evan Caminker during Senior Day ceremonies—Caminker called Rickey "a Michigan man who made a mark"—reminded Jakle of the limitless possibilities for which his Michigan education has prepared him.

"It sounds bad if I say it makes you feel small, but it does put things in perspective to know what he went on to do after leaving here," Jakle said. "And not only his personal success, but his imprint on American history. It just puts in perspective the magnitude of things people go on to do after they leave here."

The 27-year-old Rickey was a man of significant accomplishment even before he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1909. Even though he was just recovering from a life-threatening case of tuberculosis at the time, he'd already played big league baseball, studied law at Ohio State and studied and taught the subject at Ohio Wesleyan, coached varsity college baseball, and served as an athletic director. And he didn't slow down at Michigan: while he was in Law School, he also coached Michigan's varsity baseball team.

"The story goes that the dean only agreed to allow him to coach if he appeared on time and ready to answer questions in class every day," said Michigan Law Prof. Richard Friedman, who researched Rickey's Michigan career for a 2007 presentation at the Symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. "And he did."

He did so well with his studies, Friedman said, that he easily met the requirements for a JD, which was a higher-grade degree than the typical LLB of the day.

Friedman also points out that Rickey's Michigan Law classmates included both African Americans and women, furthering the young man's already fierce commitment to equality.

Jakle has gotten used to the occasional Law School reference to his distinguished ancestor. In fact, he said, Dean Caminker—who not coincidentally also is the Law School's Branch Rickey Collegiate Professor of Law—mentioned it to the entire incoming class on Jakle's very first day at the Law School.

"Yes, the dean threw down the gauntlet a little bit during the welcoming speech he gave my class three years ago," Jakle said with a laugh. "He mentioned that I have big shoes to fill, and I remember thinking, 'Now, that's a little unfair—they're too big!'"

Rickey did end up making a huge impact, but the way wasn't always smooth for him. Rickey's initial goal in attending law school was simply to set up a successful law practice, but despite his success in just about every other aspect of life, that goal eluded him.

He came back to Michigan and coached the baseball team again before being hired by the St. Louis Browns, and shortly thereafter the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey's genius as an executive continued to assert itself as he unleashed a string of changes, many of which are still in use today, on the staid baseball world. He established the first real farm system for the Cardinals and, after he moved on to become GM and part-owner in Brooklyn, for the Dodgers. He pushed for innovations such as pitching machines and batting helmets, and also urged expansion of the big leagues.

Today, Jakle takes comfort that his great grandfather, who left such a significant historical footprint, first had to overcome some difficulty—or, as a baseball person might put it, had to scuffle a bit before he got his game on track.

"I learned that it's important to consider the big picture, and to have, like my great-grandfather, both optimism and persistence," Jakle said. "It's easy to forget that there's a whole long sweep of life ahead of us, and we don't always do a good job looking beyond next September."

There have been other benefits attached to Jakle's ancestry, as well. He can get advice for his own academic research on his grandfather's career from people like Friedman, for example. Friedman, an expert on the Confrontation Clause, never fails to delight in the study of significant trends in sports and law, either. For example, he just finished reviewing a draft of a paper Jakle is writing about Rickey for Friedman's seminar on "Rules of Play."

Jakle also hopes to edit a volume of Rickey scholarship within the next year or so. And finally, it's not just anybody who can say he got an idea what his great-grandfather may have been like by watching him portrayed on the big screen by Harrison Ford in 42. It's an important time to retell Jackie Robinson's story, Jakle said.

"There's a new generation of kids right now who are right around the teenage, movie-going age who don't know this story," Jakle said. "And this is at least an introduction to it."

Check out another Michigan Law story about Branch Rickey's connection to the Law School.

Read more feature stories.

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