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Branch Rickey (Penguin Lives) [Hardcover]

Jimmy Breslin

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable man and achievement revealed with great style and insight 22 Mar 2011
By Peter Hillman - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The wonderful "Penguin Lives" series has hit another home run with Breslin's insightful, entertaining and revealing treatment of the man who, as GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940's, had the courage and foresight to facilitate Jackie Robinson's extraordinary breaking of the sport's color bar.

These "Lives" books are not meant to be exhaustive biographies. Generally, there are no indices, source notes. Rather, the author provides a quite selective bibliography for readers wanting fuller treatment. The mission of the "Lives" books, rather, is to sketch the full life, and home in on significant, inspiring acts of the subject that truly made a positive difference in the world. The several I have read, including this one, have the sense of a masterful story-teller chatting knowingly with me across a kitchen table.

Enter Breslin, an icon himself, who for more than 55 years has moved us to tears and laughter and greater understanding. His selection to treat Rickey really is "beautiful." By story's end, Penguin's choice of Rickey as the inaugural sports figure in the series--ahead of Robinson, Ruth, Thorpe--also seems totally appropriate. As Breslin shows, without Rickey doggedly pursuing his vision of integration against many foes, a decade (or more) might have passed unchanged.

What led Rickey to dissent from all 15 other baseball owners (Breslin provides their ridiculously pious and hypocritical "Statement on Race") and dedicate himself and his team to integration? Breslin reveals Rickey as a dedicated Methodist, a proponent of fairness for all, with an eye for talent (he champions a lanky young freshman named George Sisler; years later, Rickey and super scout Clyde Sukeforth seize on Robinson, but only after subjecting him to a four-hour grilling, "Will you have the guts to turn away?"; the recounting of that meeting is riveting). As do a number of others in the Penguin series, Rickey radiates as a true visionary. Not only was breaking the color bar the right thing to do morally; it also was great business. Rickey's every act in that direction was purposeful, as Breslin shows us a man who never relied on luck. "Luck," Rickey said, "is the residue of design."

So before Robinson could take the field in a Dodgers uniform and triumph over so much hostility, Rickey carefully built a new infrastructure. He steadfastly courted politicians to pass first a fair employment law and then to mobilize their constituencies; he spoke to African-American groups; he courageously ignored the racist sports writers of the time; he reasoned with some of his own racist players. "Proximity" was part of his vision for success--by being proximate to a player of Robinson's immense talent and focus, the rightness of integration would manifest itself. He was in his late 60's by then, had a long and successful career in baseball, but was determined to make this happen. And in Robinson he had a great chance.

With his unique style, wry humor and grace, gift for incisive anecdotes and riffs, and flair for embellishing dialogue without taking undue liberties, Breslin succeeds in letting his remarkable subject's life achievement show and tell itself. In so doing, Breslin's gem takes a rightful place among Penguin's other lives who really mattered.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Harrison Ford owned this! 28 Feb 2014
By Book Mark - Published on
My interest in learning more and more about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey has ground exponentially since watching the well-done blockbuster 42 that appeared in my HBO-watch list. From Harrison Ford's role in the film, I felt that Branch was 85% in it for the money - did he really want to change the world? People are motivated by so many different things, and I was impressed that his religious faith and morals played such a big part.

This book is a nice entry into the life of Rickey, but I found it a bit lacking for my appetite. It is certainly well-written and to the point, but it doesn't seem to bring forth much more information than was revealed in the movie. I plan to check out books Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball's Color Barrier and Jackie Robinson: My Own Story.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Branch Rickey: Civil Rights Pioneer 17 April 2011
By David R. Anderson - Published on
Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin's paean of praise to Branch Rickey is the fourth and most recent title in the Penguin Lives Series to frame the American struggle to provide equality to Black Americans in terms of the people who helped make it happen. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln preceded Rickey's. Of the four, Rickey's contribution is perhaps the least celebrated, but by no means the least important. Had Rickey not hired Jackie Robinson to play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, no telling when the color line in big league sports would have been breached and black athletes and others given the opportunities that had been withheld from them as a matter of law and custom from the day the first slave ship landed at Charleston.

Breslin tells the story as if he were holding forth in an Irish pub across the street from Ebbets Field. He writes in an easy, conversational voice which takes you in and makes you want to hear more. While many readers and fans know the highlights of the Rickey-Robinson story, what is not so well known is how much planning went into the groundwork to bring Robinson up to the majors. Among Rickey's challenges, the opposition of all the other owners in the major leagues, the need to persuade the New York legislature to pass a fair employment law, and the shrill opposition of many sports writers and politicians with Jim Crow sympathies.

Like the other books in this worthwhile series, it is short (146 pages) and to the point. Breslin hits the high spots in Rickey's remarkable life and in his mission to end the humiliation that marks second class citizenship wherever it is found. Rickey deserves all the praise that comes his way.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Treat For Baseball Fans 3 May 2011
By Joseph C. Sweeney - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Highly recommended.

This 146 page bio of baseball great Branch Rickey is well worth a visit. Both knowledgeable fans and newcomers, young and old, will enjoy this witty look at one of the seminal figures in the history of the sport. Terrific book.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem. About so much more than baseball. And all in just 143 pages. 18 April 2011
By Jesse Kornbluth - Published on
On the morning before John F. Kennedy's funeral, Jimmy Breslin went up to Arlington National Cemetary and watched Clifton Pollard dig Kennedy's grave.

That column --- it's a classic.

And it's one of many. New York corruption schemes. The `Son of Sam" killer. Riots. Rudy Giuliani.

Of course he won a Pulitzer.

Jimmy Breslin does not have a low opinion of himself. "Media," he likes to say, "is the plural of mediocrity."

He has a point. Media kicks people only when they're on the way down. Jimmy Breslin likes to kick them when they're riding high. Cardinal Egan couldn't bring himself to speak about abusive priests. "The man betrayed Catholics, and the Irish," Breslin wrote, "and he puts on his red hat." He savaged a then-popular governor: "'Society' Carey, his mind like sky...." The day after 9/11, when everyone else was chest-thumping, he told me, "Security will make you weep."

And now, in just 143 word-perfect pages, he has written a biography of Branch Rickey.

He didn't want to --- he was in his late 70s when Viking asked him to contribute to its series of brief biographies. But let him tell it:

"When they ask me to write a book about a Great American, right away I say yes. When I say yes I always mean no. They ask me to choose a subject, and I say Branch Rickey. He placed the first black baseball player into the major leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson. He helped clear the sidewalks for Barack Obama to come into the White House. As it only happened once in the whole history of the country, I would say that is pretty good. Then some editors told me they never heard of Rickey. Which I took as an insult, a disdain for what I know, as if it is not important enough for them to bother with. So now I had to write the book."

And what a book! It is about baseball --- but, really, it's about so much more. And it's the "much more" that makes this a sports book that should reach the widest possible audience.

Start with Branch Rickey. Baseball, writes Breslin, was "for hillbillies with great eyesight." Rickey came from Ohio farmland and he played a bit of ball, but he was smart and hard-working, and he got himself an education. Armed with a law degree, he moved to Boise, Idaho, had one client, and decided it would be smarter to coach college baseball.

Branch Rickey was complicated --- and not. "He was neither a savior nor a Samaritan," Breslin writes. "He was a baseball man, and nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty." When he ran the St. Louis Cardinals, he started buying more teams. Soon he had invented the minor league farm system. And he invented a business --- when he sold a player, he took ten percent commission.

In l943, in Brooklyn, he had a plan to make a great deal more money: "There were a million blacks who played baseball. He knew right there ... that it was only sensible to look for players who could make the Dodgers. And fill seats at Ebbets Field and all over the league."

Consider the year. Rickey started implementing his plan "four years before the armed forces were desegregated by Harry Truman, years before Brown vs. Board, decades before the Civil Rights Act and the great American law, Lyndon Baines Johnson's Voting Right Act of 1965 (and that is exactly how it should be printed in the books.). On this day, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a junior in an Atlanta high school."

No other owner supported Rickey. (Breslin: "The Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey, would spend the next twenty years keeping blacks off his teams and he got what he deserved, which was nothing.") No matter. He started looking for a player who was more than a great African-American athlete --- he had to be willing to ignore racism on and off the field.

The account of Rickey's conversations with Robinson is thrilling. So are the games. Media support? Non-existent: "No white editor in the North became a civil rights legend because no white in the North wanted anything to do with it."

Breslin digresses, and these stories are priceless. How he needed cigarettes to write, and how he stopped smoking. New York politics: "The reason why people are in the best hands when they give their problems to a politician is that the man does favors for a living." Why tobacco companies sponsored baseball.

And the sentences! "Until this morning, there has been no white person willing to take on the issue. That is fine with Rickey. He feels that he is up at bat with two outs and a 3-2 pitch coming. He is the last man up, sure he will get a hit." Yes, you could teach a whole term in a writing class off just this short book.

On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto a major league field --- and into history. And not just baseball history. When you read Breslin's final chapter.... well, you'll see.
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