Branch Rickey

As General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey changed Major League Baseball forever when he signed the first African-American player, Jackie Robinson. Legendary newspaperman Jimmy Breslin makes it clear in this conversational biography that Rickey had planned to shatter baseball's apartheid for over four decades, having already witnessed firsthand the shame of segregation when an African-American teammate was denied entry to a hotel the team had booked. The year? 1904.

 

The story of Rickey and Robinson's breakthrough serves here as an anchor for a tale of the older man's trailblazing baseball career. Rickey came to the Dodgers after building legendary St. Louis Cardinals teams—inventing the revolutionary farm system concept along the way—but had clashed with the owner when he proposed to desegregate stadium seating.  On August 28, 1945, in the Dodger offices, Rickey would transform baseball again. Breslin renders the era-altering meeting between Rickey and Robinson with appropriate drama. "I'm looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back," Rickey told Robinson, "They'll throw at your head." Intrigued and agitated, Robinson responded, "Mister Rickey, do you want a player who is afraid to fight back?" No, Rickey said: "You've got to win this thing with hitting and throwing…Nothing else!"

 

Breslin takes us inside Ohioan Rickey's strict Methodist upbringing, where his values included a loathing of liquor (the author seems unable to resist a jab at his teetotalling hero: "Rickey never understood the relaxation that accompanied a cold beer at a bar.") Yet Breslin clearly admires the man's uncompromising faith in equal opportunity. His anecdote-filled biography closes with Rickey preaching to a young prospect about the importance of education. "Stay with your education," Rickey exhorts, "You can try baseball for a while and then you'll have college helping you for the rest of your life." The prospect was Mario Cuomo, future New York Governor.

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