The Importance of Thank You Notes: A Lesson from Jackie Robinson

jackie robinson's letter
Jackie Robinson's letter to Branch Rickey demonstrates the importance of expressing gratitude. Here's what we can learn from Robinson's thank you note.
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This article veers slightly from my typical subject matter.  Today my focus is not Classic Hollywood, but classic baseball.

A few weeks ago, my daughter was studying for an upcoming history test.  For this particular test, her class was learning about heroes.  As I helped my daughter study, I was impressed with the many admirable men and women highlighted in her history book.  One was Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player, Jackie Robinson.  A piece of a letter Jackie wrote to Dodgers manager Branch Rickey was included in the text.  As I read Jackie’s words, I realized that what I was reading was a thank you note.

jackie robinson's letter to branch rickey
Jackie Robinson’s 1950 letter to Branch Rickey.

Jackie Robinson’s Letter to Branch Rickey

Jackie’s words touched me.  I researched further to find the rest of his letter.  In the process, I found not only the entirety of Robinson’s letter, but Branch Rickey’s response.  This gracious exchange between two friends was a lesson to me in the importance of expressing gratitude, particularly in the written form.  Thanks to their example, I’ll do my best to never let an opportunity to write a sincere thank you note pass me by again.

Before I share highlights from Robinson’s and Rickey’s letters, here’s a brief history of each man to put their words, and their joint accomplishment of integrating major league baseball, into perspective.

jackie robinson's letter to branch rickie
L-R: Branch Rickey in 1912; Rickey playing for the Browns in 1906.

Branch Rickey

Wesley Branch Rickey was born December 20, 1881 in Portsmouth, Ohio.  Rickey began his major league baseball career as a player for the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders (now known as the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, respectively).  A renaissance man, Rickey also coached baseball, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1904, and earned his Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Michigan.  In 1913, the 31-year old Branch Rickey became manager of the Browns, officially beginning his forty-year career as a professional baseball executive.

Branch Rickey St. Louis Browns

Branch Rickey and Charles Thomas: MLB Integration Inspiration

But it was Rickey’s early years coaching the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team that inspired his future aspiration to break the unspoken color barrier that had segregated major league baseball since the 1880s.

branch rickey and charles thomas
The 1904 Ohio Wesleyan baseball team. Charles Thomas is in the center of the back row while Branch Rickey is in the back row, far right.

While traveling with the integrated Ohio Wesleyan team during the 1903-1904 seasons, Rickey watched as black player Charles Thomas was denied a room at the hotel housing the rest of his teammates.  Infuriated, Rickey eventually negotiated an acceptable compromise with the hotel management, and Thomas was permitted to stay with Rickey in his room.  Though Charles Thomas would go on to a successful career in dentistry, Branch Rickey never forgot Thomas’ words in the hotel room that night when he dejectedly shared that “he wished he could rub away the color of his skin.”  Someday, Rickey vowed, things would be different.  As Branch Rickey once shared:

“I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”

Branch Rickey

Branch Rickey: Faith, Family, and the Dodgers

In 1942, Branch Rickey became president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Over his years with the Dodgers, Rickey pioneered the use of batting helmets, batting cages, sabermetrics, and further advanced the minor league farm system, which he’d helped develop earlier in his career.  

Despite an obvious passion for his profession, Rickey’s faith and family always came first: a Christian, Rickey was committed to his wife, six children, and a promise he made to his mother early in his baseball career to never work on Sundays.  Indeed, a condition of Rickey’s baseball executive contracts was that he would not work or attend baseball games on Sundays.

In 1943, Rickey convinced the Dodgers Board of Directors to allow him to begin his search for “the right man” to integrate major league baseball.  In August of 1945, Branch Rickey found the right man.  His name was Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson's letter to Branch Rickey
Five-year-old Jackie Robinson in 1925.

Jackie Robinson

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia to a family of sharecroppers.  He was the youngest of five children.  In 1920, Jackie’s father walked out, prompting his mother to move the Robinson family to Pasadena, California, where she worked several jobs to make ends meet.  

Jackie Robinson basketball 1939
Jackie Robinson playing basketball for UCLA in 1939.

From an early age, it was evident that Jackie was a natural athlete.  In high school, Robinson lettered in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball.  At Pasadena Junior College, he was a star athlete in each of these sports.  After graduating from Pasadena Junior College in 1939, Jackie enrolled at UCLA, where he again proved himself a star athlete.  Jackie became the school’s first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports—baseball, basketball, football, and track; and, along with actor Woody Strode, Robinson was one of four black players on the Bruins 1939 football team.

jackie robinson woody strode kenny washington
L-R: Woody Strode, Jackie Robinson, and Kenny Washington play for the Bruins in 1939.

Jackie Robinson: Faith, Family, and the Path to MLB

Like Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson’s faith and family came first: his Christian beliefs helped Jackie through the tragic death of his brother Frank, and he remained committed to his wife Rachel—a registered nurse, and their three children, throughout a nearly 30 year marriage that lasted until Robinson’s death in 1972.

Jackie Robinson and wife Rachel
Jackie Robinson and Rachel Isum wed on February 10, 1946.

Before his professional baseball career, Jackie Robinson played semi-professional football with the Honolulu Bears and the LA Bulldogs.  He also coached the basketball team at Samuel Huston College in Austin, TX.  It wasn’t until early 1945 that Jackie’s career turned squarely to baseball, when he signed a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

A few months later, on August 28, 1945, Branch Rickey signed the twenty-six-year-old Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract.  The conditions of signing were steep: no matter how much opposition Jackie faced on and off the field from those who did not want to see baseball integrated, he could not lose his temper or retaliate.  

Jackie Robinson's letter to Branch Rickey

“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Robinson asked.

No, Rickey replied, he was looking for a player:

“with guts enough not to fight.”

Robinson saw the wisdom in Rickey’s requirements; how the future of other black players in the game depended on his own decorum and behavior.  Jackie committed to “turn the other cheek.”

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jackie robinson's letter to branch rickey

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey Integrate MLB

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first major league game, breaking baseball’s unspoken color barrier.  Despite the open hostilities and opposition of many, Jackie excelled in the major leagues, becoming 1947’s Rookie of the Year.  True to his word, Robinson never lost his temper.  Thanks to his impressive playing and exemplary behavior, Jackie Robinson became extremely popular with the American public.

jackie robinson's letter

Through the vision, willpower, and teamwork of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, major league baseball was integrated, paving the way for other black players to join the major leagues, including Larry Doby,  Satchel Paige, Bill White, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson.  Along the way, a unique bond formed between Rickey and Robinson.

jackie robinson's letter to branch rickey

Jackie Robinson’s Letter to Branch Rickey

In 1950, Branch Ricky’s contract as president of the Dodger’s expired.  His future prospects with the team were limited, so Rickey opted to sell his portion of Dodgers ownership, and accept a position as executive vice president and general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When Jackie Robinson learned of Branch Rickey’s departure from the Dodgers, he did what most of us have been taught to do, but usually convince ourselves we’re too busy to follow through with: he wrote a thank you note. 

jackie robinson's letter to branch rickey

In Jackie’s beautifully hand-written letter to Branch Rickey, we get an insightful glance behind the talented ball player who took the time to write sincere words of gratitude to his mentor, the man who made Robinson’s major league baseball career possible.


Jackie Robinson’s Letter

Jackie begins the letter by expressing his sadness over Rickey’s departure from the Dodgers:

“It is certainly tough on everyone in Brooklyn to have you leave the organization but to me its much worse and I don’t mind saying we (my family) hate to see you go.  I realize that baseball is like that and anything can happen.” 

jackie robinson's letter to branch rickey

“The Finest Experience”

Robinson goes on to thank Rickey for what his vision and efforts have done not just for Robinson’s baseball career, but for the future of all black players, and the black community at large.  In the process, Jackie modestly downplays his own role in the integration of baseball, and humbly gives Rickey the majority of the credit:

“It has been the finest experience I have had being associated with you and I want to thank you very much for all you have meant not only to me and my family but to the entire country and particularly the members of our race.  I am glad for your sake that I had a small part to do with the success of your effort and must admit it was your constant guidance that enabled me to do it.  Regardless of what happens to me in the future it all can be placed on what you have done and believe me I appreciate it.”

jackie robinson's letter

“Thanks Very Much Mr. Rickey”

Robinson closes his letter with well wishes for the Rickey family, and a request for Rickey’s continued advice.  His choice of words offers further insight into the respectful friendship that made the Rickey/Robinson partnership effective in their common goal to integrate major league baseball:

“I do want to wish you and your family the very best of everything and sincerely hope that you are able to bring to Pittsburg just what you did to Brooklyn and St. Louis.  I hope to end my playing in Brooklyn as it means so very much but if I have to go any place I hope it can be with you. 

My wife joins me in saying thanks very much Mr. Rickey and we sincerely hope that we can always be regarded as your friends and whenever we need advice we can call on you as usual regardless of where we may be.  My very best wishes to you and yours and a hope for your continued success.

Sincerely yours, Jackie Robinson”

Branch Rickey

Branch Rickey’s Letter to Jackie Robinson

Robinson’s letter alone fills readers of his sincere words with the spirit of gratitude.  But Branch Rickey’s response, written a few months later, makes Robinson’s letter all the more poignant.  This written exchange between two friends who together changed history underscores the importance of expressing gratitude in writing.

Rickey begins his letter by stating he was not at all surprised to receive such a warm note from Robinson, which tells us even more about Jackie’s character: this was a man who was never too busy to write a thank you note.  Rickey goes so far as to say that Jackie’s great success can be partly attributed to his attention to such seemingly unimportant things as thank you notes.  As Branch Rickey writes to his friend:

branch rickey letter to jackie robinson
Branch Rickey’s December 1950 response to Jackie Robinson’s letter.

“…Neither your writing and sending the letter, nor its contents, gave me very much surprise…Your thoughtfulness in the field of so-called unimportant things has doubtless led to much of your success.  Anyhow, the fact that you wrote the letter, and particularly the things you said in it, not only meant very much to me, and was, as I have said, deeply appreciated, but it also revealed why you have come to so much deserved distinction.”

jackie robinson and branch rickey

“A Very Real Friendship”

Similar to Robinson’s letter, Rickey then expresses how much he values the friendship that developed between himself and Jackie as they worked to integrate the major leagues:

“Very often during these holidays, I have thought of you and Rachel and the family.  I choose to feel that my acquaintanceship with you has ripened into a very real friendship, growing out of our facing and trying to solve common problems and our continuous record of seeing eye to eye in practically all of these problems that faced us…I do want you and Rachel to know that always I, and, indeed my family, will have a constant and lasting interest in your welfare and happiness.”

Jackie Robinson Branch Rickey Rachel Isum
Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and Rachel Isum Robinson on July 23, 1962, the day Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“A Widely Useful Work”

Rickey closes his letter with another great compliment to Jackie: his belief that Robinson’s greatest contributions to bettering the position of the black community are still ahead:

“As I have often expressed to you, I think you carry a great responsibility for your people, and I am sure that you sense the duties resting upon you because of that responsibility, and I cannot close this letter without once more admonishing you to prepare yourself to do a widely useful work…

Sincerely yours, Branch Rickey”

jackie robinson's letter

Write a Thank You Note

As we celebrate this day of thanksgiving, the art of writing thank you notes could not be more relevant.  Follow the example of Jackie Robinson, and think of someone deserving of a written expression of gratitude.  Take the time to write a few sincere words of thanks, and let Jackie Robinson’s attention to the little things inspire a new habit.

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