A while back, Jimmy Breslin suggested that Branch Rickey would be a good subject for the Penguin Lives series. Breslin was stunned to find that some of the editors had never heard of Rickey, who integrated Major League Baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
That sealed it for Breslin, who decided to write the Rickey biography himself. He was about to turn 80. But who better for the job than Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author, who had covered the original Mets and chronicled life in New York City for half a century?
As a columnist, Breslin was revered and imitated by a legion of young writers. He had a gift for detail, for talking to the little guy, for capturing the essence of a story in his familiar anecdotal style. The Rickey book reads like a collection of columns, the author re-creating bits of history as if he'd been there. Like one of Breslin's columns, it's a breezy and entertaining read, if a bit self-serving at times.
Rickey, who was born in southern Ohio in 1881, was descended from a man who founded the Methodist Church in America. He promised his mother he would never play baseball on Sundays, or drink alcohol. He never wavered. "Rickey never understood the relaxation that accompanies a cold beer at the bar," Breslin writes.
As a catcher of modest abilities, Rickey was good enough to play for a brief time in the majors. He played college ball at Ohio Wesleyan, where he saw a teammate named Charlie Thomas refused a room at a hotel on a road trip to Notre Dame. Rickey hid Thomas in his own room. He never forgot the slight.
Rickey went to Michigan law school after his playing career ended. He quickly found he had no taste for the law and returned to Michigan as baseball coach. Before long, he was manager of the lowly St. Louis Browns. He spent time in the Army, then returned to the Browns. Rickey jumped to the crosstown Cardinals in 1920.
He managed the Cardinals for five years and became business manager, what we now call a general manager. Rickey spent 17 years with the Cardinals and built the famed Gashouse Gang, who won two World Series. At heart, he was a businessman and innovator. While in St. Louis, Rickey invented the minor leagues. At one point, he had 650 players in his system. He got rich selling players.
But Rickey's crowning achievement was yet to come, when he moved on to Brooklyn. After World War II ended, Rickey decided to challenge baseball's institutional racism. He urged George V. McLaughlin, the Brooklyn banker and Dodgers owner, to consider signing a black player. McLaughlin consented; he wanted to better tap the "Negro" market.
"What these two men had just done," Breslin writes, "was agree to put their hands into the troubled history of America and fix it, starting in a baseball dugout."
It was not easy, and they did not do it alone. Rickey was a political man, a staunch Republican. He worked for William Howard Taft's winning presidential campaign in 1908. Breslin recalls Rickey convincing Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, to support an equal employment bill that eased the way for Robinson in '47. Breslin referred to the first black major leaguer as "a man not yet visible, but already a destiny." He quotes Rickey as saying, "I don't know who he is, or where he is, but he is coming." It seemed an almost religious quest, as if they were in search of a savior to unite the races.
Robinson, who was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of the bus while in the Army, was Rickey's man. Robinson was bright, defiant, a supremely talented athlete. Rickey sent his trusted scout, Clyde Sukeforth ("a third-base coach to history") to Chicago to persuade Robinson to come East for an interview. Robinson, who was playing in the Negro leagues, believed it was for an all-black team.
The most powerful section of the book occurs when Sukeforth brings Robinson to meet with Rickey in the Dodgers' offices in Brooklyn. It is one of the great encounters in the history of baseball. Breslin is at his best here. He is imagining himself at the scene, watching Sukeforth's account of the event unfold in front of his eyes as he takes notes.
"Rickey was waving his cigar," he writes. "With a wave of a cigar he could cure the wound of a lifetime. He was sure of Robinson's baseball ability. He had a pile of reports on Robinson by the most famous scouts, men who could look through a sandlot's dust and see a World Series player. Now Rickey had to learn about the rest."
Rickey told Robinson he wanted to win. "Do you think you can win for us?" Robinson was silent, still suspicious. Rickey pounded his desk. "Can you?"
"Yes," Robinson said. "I don't know if you have the guts."
"I'm not afraid of anybody," Rickey said. "I'm looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back."
"Off came Rickey's jacket," Breslin writes. "Now he was the evangelist, the minister roaring and whispering to upturned faces."
The owners voted, 15-1, against letting Robinson play, on the flimsy pretense that it would harm the Negro leagues. Many players were against it. The New York sports writers were united in their silence. Breslin, perhaps airing old grievances, pillories the newsmen, who accepted meal money from the teams in all-white press boxes.
"Jimmy Powers, the sports editor of the Daily News, then with a circulation of nearly 3 million, wrote not even one column during this time that called for making room for black players."
Rickey signed him, anyway. Robinson played a year in the minors in Montreal (last month, the apartment the Robinsons stayed in was recognized by the U.S. Government for Black History Month). He joined the Dodgers in '47 and had a 10-year, Hall of Fame career. In '50, Rickey left Brooklyn and became GM of the Pirates after Walter O'Malley bought the Dodgers and waffled on his contract. The Dodgers ruled the National League in the early '50s, led by Robinson and several other black stars, including Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.
The book loses focus after the Robinson signing. Rickey retired from the Pirates in 1955 due to health problems. He watched as many of the players he brought to Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1960. He died delivering a speech about courage in Columbia, Mo., in 1965, days before his 84th birthday.
Rickey never saw himself as a social trailblazer. But it took courage to take on the baseball establishment. The signing is acknowledged as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. Breslin honors him with a place in the Penguin Lives series, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc.
In his epilogue, Breslin visits the Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn on election night, 2008. The school sits across the street from the former site of Ebbets Field, where Robinson played. A cheer goes up when the image of Barack Obama appears on a TV screen.
The story of Branch Rickey's life concludes, fittingly, with a black man being elected president of the United States.
Jerry Sullivan is The News' senior sports columnist.
Branch Rickey: A Penguin Life
By Jimmy Breslin
147 pages, $19.95