Branch Rickey

Article excerpt

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jimmy Breslin scores a solid base hit with this concise, lively biography of game-changing baseball manager Branch Rickey.

Numerous biographies of Branch Rickey have been written over the

years. Several of them are very good, but none is quite like Jimmy

Breslin's spirited and idiosyncratic little book.

Branch Rickey is the latest in the "Penguin Lives" series of

short biographies. Like the other entries in this long-running

series, the book is a model of concision. Even at a slim 147 pages,

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Breslin manages to include a number

of short autobiographical digressions and quirky personal asides. The

result is a lively portrait of a man the author refers to as a

"Great American" that is informative and highly entertaining.

Wesley Branch Rickey (1881-1965) is best remembered as the general

manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who initiated the integration of the

modern major leagues. His signing of Jackie Robinson to a Dodgers

contract in 1945 electrified the nation, changed the face of the

national pastime, and dealt an early blow to segregation in America.

Why did Rickey defy the status quo, not to mention the other 15

owners of major league teams, by making an assault on the unwritten

rule that kept black players out of organized baseball? He told the

press that he just wanted to win a pennant for Brooklyn, which is at

least partially true. A more cynical view holds that Rickey saw the

crowds at Negro league games and wanted to bring some of those fans,

and their dollars, to Ebbets Field. A devout Methodist and an admirer

of Lincoln, Rickey had strong moral convictions and a penchant for

the grand gesture.

Whatever his motive, being the first to tap into the extraordinary

talent in the Negro leagues enabled Rickey to build a dynasty that

won the National League pennant seven times between 1947

(Robinson's rookie year) and 1956 (his last year in the majors).

Rickey grew up in a family of modest means in rural Scioto County in

southern Ohio. He and his older brother, Orla, played baseball on

sandlot fields. In the summer of 1903, while a student at Ohio

Wesleyan University, he was a catcher for several minor league teams

and was called up to the Cincinnati Reds in late August. Traded twice

that season, he made his first major league plate appearance with the

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