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.
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.
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.