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Branch Rickey

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

By David Conrads / March 21, 2011

Branch Rickey By Jimmy Breslin Viking 147 pp.

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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.

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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 St. Louis Browns.

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