This entry in the Penguin Lives series focuses on Branch Rickey’s game-changing efforts to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, shattering baseball’s race barrier.
At the age of 80, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Breslin (The Good Rat: A True Story, 2008, etc.) retains his legendary savvy street smarts and crustiness. In a brief volume about a baseball executive, he creates opportunities to crack wise (“Baseball was a sport for hillbillies with great eyesight”), skewer (actress Tallulah Bankhead was “a loud dimwit from Alabama”) and appropriately condemn (he blasts baseball journalists of the Robinson era for their unconscionable social blindness and moral retardation). Wesley Branch Rickey (1881–1965), born on an Ohio farm, attended Ohio Wesleyan University, played baseball, made it to the pros (he didn’t excel), went to law school and then returned to baseball, where he spent most of the rest of his life as an executive. Breslin credits him for inventing the farm system—a system he compares, fairly crudely, with slavery. The author skims across most of Rickey’s career, rightly highlights his efforts to integrate Major League Baseball and shows how the trio of black players Rickey brought to the Dodgers—Robinson, pitcher Don Newcombe, catcher Roy Campanella—elevated the team to elite status. Breslin covers Rickey’s final years in a furious few pages, including a stand-alone chapter about legendary black pitcher Satchel Paige. Along the way, we catch glimpses of Rickey’s Christian piety, his GOP allegiance and his hand in assembling the 1960 Pirates, a team that defeated the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series with a home run by second baseman Bill Mazeroski, the last player Rickey had scouted. Breslin ends in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, an event he alluded to on page one.
Quirky, idiosyncratic, oddly balanced and surpassingly entertaining.