Friday, April 15, 2011

"Branch Rickey" by Jimmy Breslin

You don't have to be a sports fan in order to enjoy this book. You don't even have to be from Brooklyn. But it helps. Jimmy Breslin, one of the best newspaper columnists ever, colored my world each day while I was growing up in New York. His columns were satirical, witty and even educational. Through those columns, and several of his books, I learned so much about the politics that drove New York in the 1960's. His novel, "The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight" still stands the test of time, and, along with Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls", will forever serve as a portrait of a bygone era in the history of the city.

Now add to Mr. Breslin's accomplishments this fine 146 page book, which is at once a biography of one of baseball's leading figures, and also the story of Jackie Robinson's entry into the Major Leagues. Branch Rickey served as his "Rabbi" in that endeavor. And what an endeavor it was!

At the close of the Second World War many African-Americans returned home to face the same old Jim Crow laws and segregation that they had left behind while fighting overseas. Freedom abroad and segregation at home was not going to work anymore.

Mr. Breslin paints a fine picture of Branch Rickey, extolling his virtues along with his quirkiness. In a ball park where everyone drank, Mr. Rickey was like Molly Hatchet, regaling reporters and players with the hazards of drink. Coming from an overweight, cigar puffing man in his 50's, this only served to endear him more to those who knew him.

Mr. Rickey did so much for baseball. He established the modern day "farm league", de-segregated the sport, and just by being Branch Rickey, kept the game exciting and viable. Don't get me wrong, he was in it for the money, he sold players, that was his job. He had been a player himself, until World War One interrupted his career, while he served overseas in the First Gas Regiment as a chemical-assault engineer. When he returned home he managed the St. Louis Browns, until he was replaced, at which time he went over to the St. Louis Cardinals as manager.

During the 1920's he began buying teams all across the United States, from farm leagues to Negro leagues, and even women's leaugues, amassing a small army of minor leaguers, some of whom would go on to bigger and better days in baseball.

During the Second World War, in July of 1944, Jackie Robinson had been in some trouble. (He refused to give up a seat on a bus in Temple, Texas.) He was given a General Court Martial and faced some serious time in prison. The fact that the military police officer in charge of the arrest had called him a "nigger" caused all charges to be dropped, and Lt. Robinson was released.

By 1946 Jackie Robinson was playing for the Montreal Royals in the minor leagues. He hit .349 and stole 40 bases. He was beginning to attract attention. Team owners met in Chicago and began to discuss the "race question" in baseball. This was the first step towards Jackie Robinson, along with Branch Rickey, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

A short, informative read, filled with stories of baseball legends and lore, this is the perfect book for the beginning of another season of America's favorite pastime.

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