Pulitzer Prize–winning Breslin offers this slim biography on baseball manager and executive Branch Rickey, a man Breslin refers to as a “Great American.” What results is a well-rounded look at a man who not only reformed competitive sports but also influenced the norms of society by helping Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color barrier. Born to a tight-knit family in Ohio in the late 19th century, Rickey’s career as a major league player didn’t last long (as a catcher, he once allowed 13 stolen bases in a game), so he graduated from law school and became the manager of the St. Louis Browns. Yet his most far-reaching achievements happened decades later during his time in Brooklyn, when he shook baseball to its foundations by bringing Robinson to the Dodgers. Rickey as general manager knew there would be backlash and Robinson would be subject to rampant racism, but he was undeterred and never stooped to the level of those who attempted to sabotage his work. As he later told a group of students, “racial extractions and color hues and forms of worship become secondary to what men can do.” Breslin’s gift for easy-to-read yet hard-hitting prose will touch even those who aren’t baseball fans. (Mar.)
Pulitzer Prize winner Breslin reveals much about the development of baseball, the Dodgers' last years in Brooklyn, and the struggle to overcome the national pastime's racism while tracing the life, deeds, and some (but not all) of Branch Rickey's warts. A breezy read, this "Penguin Life" is nonetheless insightful, humorous, and biting at times as it traces how the man dubbed "the Mahatma" by sportswriters emerged from obscurity as an Idaho lawyer to develop the baseball farm system, multiple MLB winners, Vero Beach spring training, the scientific teaching of skills, and the MLB expansion that brought New York the Mets. Breslin clearly admires Rickey. Lovers of the author, baseball, and/or Americana will be delighted to relive this trailblazer's life in this superlative gloss, which, owing to brevity, will not replace more extensive Rickey biographies.—G.R.
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.
Much has been written about [Rickey's] role in the integration of major league baseball, and Jimmy Breslin's slim biography, Branch Rickey, breaks no new factual ground. What Breslin has done, with his usual gritty perception, is revive a story of enormous consequence…Breslin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a master of the spare narrative.
The New York Times
[Breslin's] effort is less a full biography than an anecdotal retelling of Rickey's plot to knock down the door to the all-white club of the major leagues…It's a slim book, but one pauses over its many bold turns of phrase and mood-setting riffs…Breslin brings his trademark grit and grace to the combustible issue of civil rights in baseball.
The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"Breslin's gift for easy-to-read yet hard-hitting prose will touch even those who aren't baseball fans." Publishers Weekly