Review: “Branch Rickey,” by Jimmy Breslin
Branch Rickey’s life story has been told before but never in the way Jimmy Breslin tells it. In his biography of the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who masterminded the integration of baseball, Breslin acknowledges the efforts of writers who preceded him. He points to Arthur Mann’s “Branch Rickey: American in Action” (1957), Lee Lowenfish’s “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman” (2007) and Murray Polner’s “Branch Rickey: A Biography” (1982). “Polner,” Breslin writes, “is a friend, but I would . . . reread his work even if I hated him.”
So why add to the bookshelf? The combative 80-year-old says he was provoked into it. He writes that he was at first lukewarm when asked to contribute to the Penguin Lives Series but that his temperature shot up after some editors said they had never heard of the Great American he wanted to profile. Breslin took offense: These editors seemed not just ignorant but disdainful of Rickey’s importance. What Rickey did wasn’t frozen in history, or restricted to the world of baseball. It has flowed through the years to help “clear the sidewalks for Barack Obama to come into the White House,” Breslin points out, adding, “So now I had to write the book.”
His effort is less a full biography than an anecdotal retelling of Rickey’s plot to knock down the door to the all-white club of the major leagues, first for Jackie Robinson, then for Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella and all who followed. It’s a slim book, but one pauses over its many bold turns of phrase and mood-setting riffs. “Rickey was waving his cigar,” Breslin tells us, describing the scene of the executive’s first meeting with Robinson. “With a wave of a cigar he could cure the wound of a lifetime.” Breslin’s words bend to his will, and you know exactly where he stands, where his heart sits. And in Breslin’s heart, Rickey was a legend: the man who, the author writes in the immediacy of the present tense, “means to change baseball and America, too. . . . There has been no white person willing to take on the issue.” But, Breslin warns, “You held the American heart in your hand when you attempted to change anything in baseball. If a black was involved, the cardiograms showed an ice storm.”
Breslin brings his trademark grit and grace to the combustible issue of civil rights in baseball. Biases were ugly, resistance was strong, and, in Breslin’s hands, Rickey was a bull-headed businessman blessed with a “fierce belief that it is the deepest sin against God to hold color against a person.” A teetotaling Methodist from southern Ohio, Rickey stayed out of the ballpark on Sunday to honor a religious vow he made to his mother. He played briefly in the majors but found much greater success as a coach, scout and team executive. Before achieving his historic claim to fame, he spent a quarter-century (1917-42) with the St. Louis Cardinals, developing teams that won six National League pennants and four World Series. He also created the farm system, “which gathered players of promise and grew them, like crops,” Breslin writes. In St. Louis, he tried to integrate ballpark seating so blacks could get out of the 100-degree heat of the bleachers and join whites in the shaded grandstands. Cardinals’ owner Sam Breadon “knew Rickey was right,” Breslin explains, “but not as right as the gasoline that people in that near-Southern city would splash over the wooden stands in order to burn them to the ground.”
When he arrived in Brooklyn, Rickey took on the issue of integration with a fervency that he cloaked in businesslike common sense. He won the backing of the banker who controlled the Dodgers’ finances, George V. McLaughlin, by stressing the profit motive: The best black ball players would be good for pennants and for the club’s bottom line. Next, Rickey had to find the right ball player to cross the color line. Prowess was important, but so was character. Rickey needed a man who could “control himself under insults and even assaults and put the attackers to shame.” “I want a ballplayer,” Rickey told Robinson at their first meeting, “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Rickey touched every base to create as smooth an introduction for Robinson as possible. He prevailed upon New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey to push for a state law demanding that no worker — including baseball players — be penalized on the basis of race. He took on team owners who feared that an invasion of black players in the major leagues would kill the Negro leagues and destroy the owners’ investments in those leagues. He challenged the holdouts among the baseball newspaper writers who either refused to write about integrating baseball or disparaged the idea. He walked a tricky line, urging black fans not to overreact in triumph when Robinson walked onto the field; excessive celebration, he warned, could cause a white backlash.
Rickey trusted in proximity: Put a white man next to a black man, let them sit in a dining car together, let them play cards together, and magic will occur. As the train rumbled along the tracks on a 12-day road trip in that first season, several wary white players watched from a distance while the stars Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider dined with Robinson, everybody laughing and joshing. Reserve catcher Bobby Bragan remembered the impact of that moment. “We were outsiders. . . . We were out of it,” said the Texan. “It did not last forever, I’ll tell you that.” On a later road trip, Bragan got himself a seat at the table with Robinson. “I don’t care where you’re from . . . he was the best company.”
Proximity is most powerful when it’s unconscious. Breslin finds evidence of it in a photo of Reese and Robinson coming off the field, side by side, after an inning, two ball players looking down heading for the dugout: “Reese’s white left hand was only inches away from Robinson’s black right hand, but neither of them noticed.”
Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of Book World.
BRANCH RICKEY By Jimmy Breslin Viking. 147 pp. $19.95