“Branch Rickey” Review


Today, April 15, is Jackie Robinson Day around Major League Baseball.  Every player, not just Mariano Rivera, will be wearing Jackie Robinson’s retired number 42.

But Jackie Robinson wouldn’t be Jackie Robinson without Branch Rickey, the man who for years privately labored to break baseball’s color barrier.  Rickey is the subject of Jimmy Breslin’s 2011 book Branch Rickey, a short and enjoyable read of only 146 pages.  Two years later, Breslin’s work acts as a good companion to 42, released nationwide last weekend.

The book’s length prevents Breslin from going into depth about Rickey, his character, and his motivations.  But it does provide a snapshot of the man and his most consequential act: signing Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945.  By the time Robinson debuted at Ebbets Field in 1947, Rickey had already laid years of groundwork to ensure his experiment wouldn’t become a high-profile failure.

Breslin devotes just enough space to Robinson, particularly Lieutenant Jack Robinson’s court-martial in 1944 while serving in the Army during World War II.  After refusing a request to move to the back of a bus at Fort Hood, Texas, military police arrested Lt. Robinson and later charged him with several offenses in a military court, including conduct unbecoming an officer.  Breslin doesn’t deliver a conclusion on the incident.  Instead, he lets the reader examine the witness statements in their entirety, allowing the audience to reach the same verdict as the nine-member all-white jury in 1944: not guilty.  Robinson’s principled stand and his subsequent poise under stress made an impression on Rickey the following year when he began his search for the perfect man to shatter baseball’s racist stereotypes.

But the book is about Rickey, a principled man in his own right.  Rickey abhorred racism, and decided early in his career to use his influence in baseball to do something about it.  Rickey began his baseball playing career as a catcher in 1905.  He could never quite stick with a team, however, constantly angering his managers by refusing to play on Sunday, thereby upholding a promise made to his devoutly Methodist mother.  Rickey’s stubbornness as a player was likely a clue for the career he would eventually craft.  Principle over convenience.  Conviction or convention.

After revolutionizing the role of the baseball executive in St. Louis (where he established baseball’s first effective farm system), Rickey devoted his career to a high purpose: integrating baseball.  He moved from St. Louis to Brooklyn, escaping baseball’s southern-most town for a city full of immigrants and known for its ethnic and racial diversity.  Brooklyn provided the perfect backdrop for Rickey’s project.  Once arriving in Brooklyn, Rickey began his slow march to integration.  One by one, Rickey executed his carefully constructed six-point plan.  Find the right man off the field.  Find the right man on the field.  Get Black Americans on board with the experiment.  Get the press on his side.  Get the Brooklyn Dodger teammates on board as well.

Robinson was clearly the right man, both on and off the field.  He was principled, but remarkably talented.  Electric in the field and on the basepaths–a sparkplug that would shatter the stereotypes that blacks couldn’t compete in a white man’s game.  More importantly, he would maintain his stoicism in the face of the taunts and heckles.  Don’t hit back, Rickey told him, because people only see the second punch.

But Rickey knew the setting off the field was just as critical.  He needed positive press and teammates willing to stand up for their new second basemen.  But most importantly, he needed the rest of Black America to follow his lead.  Rickey wanted the public to believe Jackie Robinson was all about baseball and nothing more.  This wasn’t an experiment in social change, it was about winning baseball games–or so Rickey wanted everyone to believe.  Rickey worried that the public would turn Jackie Robinson into a symbol rather than a ball player.  If the Jackie Robinson social revolution looked like a social revolution, Rickey knew it wouldn’t succeed.

Well, it did succeed.  Jackie was the right man.  But Branch Rickey was the right man, too.


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