Pulitzer Prize-winner Jimmy Breslin scores a solid base hit with this concise, lively biography of game-changing baseball manager Branch Rickey.
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An old-time newspaper man, Breslin has a flair for blunt prose with a dash of wit. This is how he describes Rickey’s inauspicious debut as a hitter: “He faced Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics. Waddell threw three pitches. Rickey wasn’t sure he saw them. The umpire was certain. He said they were strikes.”
Rickey proved to be less than major league caliber behind the plate as well. In 1907, while catching for the New York Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees), an opposing team stole 13 bases on him, a record that stands to this day.
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Newly married, Rickey returned home, coached baseball at Ohio Wesleyan, took law classes at Ohio State, and threw himself into the 1908 presidential campaign of fellow Ohioan William Howard Taft. After earning a law degree at the University of Michigan, he practiced law briefly, and not very successfully, in Idaho, then went back to Michigan to coach baseball.
In 1913, Rickey returned to the big leagues as manager of the St. Louis Browns. He was in baseball for the rest of his working life, mostly as general manager of the Browns, St. Louis Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He came to define the modern baseball executive, immersing himself in all aspects of the organization.
He was also a shrewd and inventive businessman. While with the Cardinals, Rickey invested in several minor league teams and used them to develop future players for the Cardinals. Not everyone was enamored of the farm system, which was widely known as the “Chain Gang” for the way players were bought and sold without their consent. Even the commissioner opposed it. It produced talent for the Cardinals and also earned Rickey a lucrative, 10 percent commission on players he sold to other teams.
“Branch Rickey was neither a savior nor a samaritan,” Breslin writes. “He was a baseball man, and nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty.”
Like Rickey’s breaking of the color line, the farm system was innovative in its day, even radical, and harshly criticized by many. In time, both were adopted by all other teams in Major League Baseball and today are taken very much for granted.
David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.