Rickey and Robinson’s Third Man

Jackie Robinson and Clyde Sukeforth

 In 1945 Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson set the sports world on its ear (and on edge) by joining together in integrate the Major Leagues. When they sat down in a room in Brooklyn to do so, there was a third man in that room who was almost as important as either. His name wasn’t Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten or Anton Karas or even Alida Valli. It was Clyde Sukeforth.

Sukeforth was born in Maine in 1901, spent two years in college (Georgetown), played for Nashua and Manchester in the New England League, then was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1926. He was a catcher. He had some good years, but was never a star. He played 10 years hitting .264 with a peak of .354 in 84 games in 1929. He managed all of two home runs, one in 1929 and the other in the juiced ball year of 1930. In 1931 he played in more than 100 games for the only time in his career. In the off-season he went hunting and took a shotgun pellet in his right eye. Needless to say his career tanked. In March 1932 he was traded to Brooklyn (one of the players involved was future Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi) where he was a part-time catcher through 1934. He also played in 18 games in 1945 to fill out a wartime roster. He could still hit a little, going .294 for the 18 games.

After leaving the majors he coached in the Dodgers minor league system until 1943, when Brooklyn brought him back to the majors as a coach and, more importantly, as a scout. When Rickey decided to integrate the Dodgers, he turned to Sukeforth to scout the Negro Leagues.  It seems that Sukeforth was the only person on the Dodgers staff that Rickey confided in when it came to integration. Others were told the franchise was contemplating a “Black Dodgers” team for the Negro Leagues. Although Rickey apparently had already focused on Robinson, he needed Sukeforth to scout both Robinson and other players who might also be available.

Sukeforth’s recommendation was for Robinson. Rickey agreed and called Robinson in for a meeting. As mentioned above, Sukeforth had the distinction of being the third man in the room when Rickey pitched integrating the Major Leagues to Robinson.

In 1946, Sukeforth was sent to Nashua (where he had once played) to form a class B minor league team. The team was to include both Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Sukeforth is credited with easing the integration of the league and making sure the town accepted the black players. By 1947 he was back with the Dodgers,serving as a coach and confidant for Robinson. The Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, was suspended at the start of the 1947 campaign and Sukeforth chosen as his temporary replacement, thus becoming the manager during Robinson’s first game. He managed only two games before returning to coaching. He was still around in 1951 and is considered responsible, in some circles, for sending Ralph Branca in to game three of the National League playoff. I don’t buy that. He wasn’t the manager and if the manager let the bullpen coach (Sukeforth) make the decision, then the manager needed to be fired. The upshot, of course, is that it was Sukeforth who was fired.

He went to Pittsburgh in 1952 as a coach and scout where he was instrumental in the Pirates’ drafting Roberto Clemente in 1954. He stayed with Pittsburgh through 1957, then retired. He was brought back periodically through 1962 as both a scout and minor league manager, then moved to a scouting position with the Braves until he finally retired. He died at age 98 in 2000. According to Wikipedia a fresh baseball “can be found on his gravesite at all times.”

I’ve always thought that Sukeforth never gets enough credit for his role in integrating baseball. I agree that the principles, Rickey and Robinson, deserve the most credit, but I think Sukeforth is significant in that he ultimately recommended Robinson, became a confidant to Robinson during the most troublesome period of the integration, and then served as mentor to other Dodgers black players, while also becoming a leading proponent of bringing in Latin players like Clemente. We all owe Clyde Sukeforth a debt. Hopefully this pays back a small part of it.


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2 Responses to “Rickey and Robinson’s Third Man”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    Clyde Sukeforth died in a small Maine mid-coast village called Waldoboro at age 98. I lived there for a year. His grave almost always has a baseball on top of it, even in the winter.
    Excellent post, Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Interesting to hear from someone who’s been to his grave. Don’t suppose you ever met him? Could be some interesting anecdotes for your own blog.

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