Monday, May 23, 2011

Branch Rickey

...an adult book today. Either indulge me in my annual adult nonfiction baseball read, or come back later in the week when I hope to have great things from BookExpo America in New York. Thanks!

Breslin, Jimmy. 2011. Branch Rickey. New York: Penguin . 
     The two men sat across from each other at Joe's Restaurant.  Breaking salt rolls into crumbs, Rickey immediately told Barber, "Mrs. Rickey and my family say I'm too old at sixty-four, and my health is not up to it.  They say I've gone through enough baseball and [taken enough] from the newspapers.  That every hand is baseball will be against me.  But I'm, going to do it."

     "He looked straight into my eyes," remembered [Red] Barber, fixing my attention."

     Rickey said, "I'm going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers."
 Barber remembered Branch Rickey speaking slowly as he said it.  "I'm going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

   Barber sat straight and silent.

    "I don't know who he is," continued Rickey, "or where he is, but he is coming."
Whatever one may think of the controversial Jimmy Breslin, it's difficult to deny that he's a great writer, and due to his long career and many connections to the sports world and New York in general, he was the perfect choice to write this book on Branch Rickey for the Penguin Lives series. Although he, himself, met Rickey only once, Breslin read extensively about him, and interviewed many people who still remembered the man who brought Jackie Robinson, the first African American, player into Major League Baseball.

What little I knew about Rickey came from watching Ken Burns' documentary, Baseball, and from reading books about Jackie Robinson; but I always wanted to know more about man who put the wheels of integration in motion.  What motivated Rickey?  Altruism?  Money? Religion? Baseball?
It was all of these, and yet it was none. In the simplest explanation, it was Rickey's sense of fairness that drove him to integrate Major League Baseball.  That he was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers gave him the opportunity to make his dream of equality take root in the game of baseball.  That he was a religious man, made him see the righteousness of his cause and allowed him to bring other like-minded individuals into the fold.  When faced with those who were neither fair nor religious, Rickey appealed to their sense of business acumen.  These talented young African Americans were the future of baseball.  He saw it as a good financial investment (although it was devastating to the Negro Leagues), and wasn't afraid to sell the concept on its business merits, and make money in the process, too.  In short, he was a clever, fair, and honest man with a dream of racial equality.  It took him years of planning and the ideal choice of Jackie Robinson to make it happen, but Branch Rickey, can be credited with the integration of Major League Baseball. Not bad for a poor boy "from the hills and swamps of Southern Ohio."

Told in a largely anecdotal style, Branch Rickey is a short, fascinating read for baseball and history fans, regaling the reader with little-known stories of baseball lore. At one point, the always opinionated Breslin (once a heavy drinker) inserts his own theory on alocohol, smoking, and cancer, opposing Rickey's ardent lifetime antipathy towards liquor. This is the one digression that detracts from the story, which otherwise reads like an old friend telling well-worn family lore. (perhaps old friends may be forgiven a digression or two)

And with long-practiced ease, Breslin artfully weaves the story of Branch Rickey into the context of today, pulling the ends of the story together in the middle, with people cheering the election of Barack Obama from their local polling place - Jackie Robinson High School.  How fitting.

I love baseball.

This is an adult nonfiction title, but get your glasses out, because its font is better suited for much younger eyes! (Centennial LT Std 45 Light, if you're interested)

Listen here to an interview with Jimmy Breslin about writing Branch Rickey.

2 comments:

  1. I wrote a biography on Jackie Robinson (under pen name Paul Mercer) and found Rickey a fascinating figure. Thanks for shining a light on his motives.

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  2. Thanks for sharing, Catherine. For those interested, here is a link to Catherine's book on Jackie Robinson. http://www.catherinenichols.com/jackie_robinson_93584.htm

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