Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball
Rodale Books, 2014
304 pp., $25.99
Michael R. Stevens
The Integration of Baseball
Troubling enemies, indeed, both for Rickey as a person and for Rickey as the catalyst for the integration of the sport. Kahn never denies Rickey's love of getting and retaining money, both for the teams he worked for as general manager. (He built three different competitors as general manager: the Cardinals of the '30s and early '40s, the Dodgers of the late '40s and early '50s, and the Pirates of the late '50s and early '60s—a record of achievement unmatched by any other GM.) Kahn writes with some shock that "The magnitude of Rickey's compensation glitters like gold when matched against the salaries of the stars of his first Brooklyn championship team… . While Rickey was banking his $90,000 plus, the collective salary for the entire Dodgers' starting nine in 1947—the team that would win the National League pennant—came to $87,500. All by himself, Rickey outearned his entire ball club." So the sobriquets of Jimmy Powers for Rickey—"El Cheapo" and "the skinflint"—were rooted in reality. But they became a vast red herring for the most powerful members of the media, and Kahn calls the bluff: "What a distraction. Under Rickey, Jackie Robinson was integrating baseball and the country. Under Rickey, the greatest of all Brooklyn teams was coming together with Hall of Fame players at shortstop, second base, home plate and center field. The Boys of Summer had arrived! Yet the most popular paper in New York blew no triumphal trumpets. Blind to both panoramic happenings, the News kept its focus tightly on the ledger, even as a dismal bank clerk in a drab setting drawn by Dickens."
Yet Kahn locates unexpected and quiet heroes amidst the newspapermen with whom he shared hundreds of summer nights in the press boxes of the National League parks, and he lays overdue laurels on the head of Branch Rickey's greatest press ally: "Where, then, can we find a hard-driving press arising and demanding, time after time, year after year, the integration of baseball here and now? Militant and unflinching protests appeared consistently in only one place, the sports pages of the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, USA. Who wrote most of those protest pieces and led the charge? A soft-spoken journalist from Brooklyn named Lester Rodney, who was born into a mercantile Jewish family. The Brooklyn Jewish-Negro connection never looked tighter." Denied entry into The Baseball Writers' Association, and hence into clubhouses and press boxes at first, Rodney nevertheless faithfully and vigorously reported on the game's not-so-secret racism. In August of 1936 he launched a headline: "OUTLAWED BY BASEBALL: THE CRIME OF THE BIG LEAGUES," which ran with this teaser: "The newspapers have carefully hushed it up! One of the most sordid stories in American sports! Though they win laurels for America in the Olympics—though they have proven themselves outstanding baseball stars—Negroes have been placed beyond the pale of the American and National Leagues." He followed a few days later with a call to fans across the nation: "Demand the end of Jim Crow baseball." It would take ten years for anyone to listen, but Lester Rodney's campaign proceeded undiminished through the turbulent years up to and including World War II.
Oddly, Kahn claims that for much of this same period, "During these years of stirring racial currents, Rickey, the would-be second Great Emancipator, was out to lunch," perhaps biding his time and certainly accruing his fortune. What changed? One key event was the death of baseball's czar, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, elected in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal (he banned the 'conspirators' from baseball for life) and hovering over all significant decisions (including the tacit one to ban black players) until his death in 1944. As Lester Rodney told Kahn at their final meeting in 2009, "At the Worker we prepared petitions to open the game to blacks. More than a million people signed them. Figuratively those petitions were dumped on Landis's desk. He was unmoved. The only end to his opposition to blacks in baseball was death. His own death. Within one year of Landis dying, our long campaign bore fruit. Rickey signed Jackie Robinson." Kahn marvels, as did Robinson, at the consistent witness for justice of the American Communist press. One of the touching vignettes surrounding the actual signing of Robinson to the Brooklyn club just at the start of the 1947 season (a year and a half after he'd signed the first deal to play in the organization) is when Kahn recalls the circulation of a memo from Rickey in the press box that Jackie had been signed from the Montreal minor league affiliate, to report to the big club immediately: "Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post stood up and slowly walked to a seat occupied by Lester Rodney of the Communist Daily Worker. Intensely and sincerely Cannon said, 'Congratulations.' " Jimmy Cannon, not to be confused with Kahn's nemesis Jimmy Powers, turns out to be another of the quiet heroes of a frenetically paced New York newspaper environment. After a supposed player's strike among National League teams (and even some of the Dodgers) was put down by National League president Ford Frick, Cannon, whom Kahn describes as a "self-educated Irishman from Greenwich Village, [who] drew on Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway—and of course himself—for a style that many, including Hemingway, found overwhelming," penned an attack on the conspiring ballplayers that began: "'You don't always lynch a man by hanging him from a tree. There is a great lynch mob among us and they go unhooded and work without rope… . They lynch a man with a calculated contempt which no court of law can consider a crime. Such a venomous conspiracy is the one now trying to run Jackie Robinson out of organized baseball… . It is an indication, I believe, that as a people we are a failure and not as good as the laws by which we live." Philosophers with portable typewriters; sports hacks with strong moral visions; is it any wonder that Kahn pines for those days even as he laments and excoriates the slowness of change?