Branch Rickey (Penguin Lives)
160 pp., $19.95
Michael R. Stevens
White middle-America pietists of the Jim Crow era are not usually seen as progenitors of the Civil Rights Movement; indeed, if anything, they are the stock villains of the era, or decided non-participants. But Jimmy Breslin's quirky installation in the much-heralded Penguin Lives series sets the record emphatically straight by positing Branch Rickey as perhaps the white crusader for racial equality in the 20th century. The thesis is bold, offered with a New York journalist's braggadocio from the irrepressible Breslin, who gives a scattershot narrative tinged with real affection and reverence (he mentions with regret that in his only meeting with Rickey, he let his schoolboy cockiness get the better of him). As with many of the Penguin Lives volumes I've read, there is no attempt at linear biography here, but a series of moments, captured and accruing towards a central theme. In Breslin's case, it seems the theme is that outsiders make tremendous differences in the world—and this is evidenced not only by Rickey's life, and Jackie Robinson's, but also Breslin's own.
Branch Rickey's story is a fable of idealism trumping circumstance, and the anecdotal tidbits that Breslin throws in sometimes have a tall-tale vibe to them. Born in 1881 near Portsmouth, Ohio of a mother from the founding line of Methodism in America, Rickey was steeped in a distinctively American hard-scrabble classicism. A signal moment in his education occurred after a bookstore fire in town, when "the father bought eleven damaged books for a hard-to-come-by $2.25. He purchased Dante's Inferno, and The Story of the Bible and the New Testament and four volumes of Washington Irving. The father worked on his sons' reading and the mother on their belief in God." Rickey later upheld the ethos of both parents, excelling at Ohio Wesleyan College despite having not attended high school, while also serving as secretary at the local YMCA, where "they brought in figures such as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and Booker T. Washington, who delivered a detailed report on the condition of blacks in America." Along the way, Rickey progressed during the summers all the way to the big leagues, toiling as a catcher clad in the "tools of ignorance" (including turn-of-the-century masks that often punctured the face). He played a bit for the Reds and White Sox, but refused to play on Sundays. By the time of his final game, for the 1906 New York Highlanders, his arm had gone dead, and "thirteen runners stole bases on him that day"! But the end of his playing career was only his beginning in baseball.
The theme of resiliency continues in Breslin's account, woven thickly with luck or Providence or craftiness, depending on your vantage point. Rickey is struck with tuberculosis, an often fatal ailment well into the 20th century, but he rallies in a Saratoga sanitarium, and immediately leaps into law school at the University of Michigan. His first foray as a lawyer fails, but he returns to Michigan as a baseball coach, and his first tryout includes a freshman named George Sisler, a future Hall of Famer whom Rickey took with him when he left Michigan to work for the St. Louis Browns. After a stint in a combat unit in World War I, he came home to a new job in St. Louis, running the Cardinals and developing the modern notion of a farm system, developing players within the organization. Along the way, Breslin adds to the factors of education and piety a third ingredient of this American life—the penchant for money: "Branch Rickey was neither a savior nor a samaritan. He was a baseball man, and nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty." And it was the confluence of all these forces, embodied in and orchestrated by Branch Rickey, that made the Jackie Robinson chapter of the story possible.
Indeed, Rickey's plan to integrate baseball was already well underway, constructed on belief and intelligence and good business sense, before he ever heard of Jackie. Breslin's opening chapter centers on the day in January 1943 when Rickey met with the banker holding the Dodgers mortgage. Breslin is blunt here: "In no calling, craft, profession, trade, or occupation was color in America accepted. The annals of the purported greats show that everyone was paralyzed with the national disease: color fear. But here on this street corner stands Branch Rickey, a lone white man with a fierce belief that it is the deepest sin against God to hold color against a person. On this day he means to change baseball and America, too." Rickey couched his plan to scout and stock minor league teams with colored players as a way to get an edge on other teams, competitively and financially, and he won over the financiers, who themselves were complicit in a culture of bigotry. Then Rickey had to find the right player to break the line, and here Breslin takes an interesting detour, into the transcripts of Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson's court martial trial at Fort Hood, Texas in July 1944, on charges of verbally abusing a white driver and white passengers after refusing to move to the back of the bus. Everything about Jackie's personality is prophesied in that transcript: the intelligence, the defiance, the biting tongue, the outlandish courage against the odds. When Jackie was acquitted after witnesses proved shaky, the seeds were sown for the "Great Experiment."