As the baseball season begins you'll want to wedge a copy of Branch Rickey in your gym bag. This new biography by legendary newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin is peppery, original, opinionated and irresistible.
Rickey, the front-office man who integrated Major League Baseball, is not nearly as famous as he ought to be — a situation that irked Breslin to no end. Asked to contribute a volume to Penguin's Brief Lives series, a roster that has included such luminaries as Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill, Breslin said he'd like to write about Rickey.
"Then some editors told me they never heard of Rickey," Breslin recounts in his introduction. "Which I took as an insult, a disdain for what I know, as if it is not important enough for them to bother with."
Breslin's umbrage took the form of this scrappy, sawed-off narrative that goes its own way and breaks a lot of rules, just as Rickey did. As owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey put an African-American player named Jackie Robinson into his lineup in 1947. The gesture was, Breslin writes, an "assault on ignorance" — the ignorance of segregation and prejudice. Rickey possessed, Breslin adds, "a fire in him to fix a nation."
This is not, however, just a book about social justice. It's a baseball book. Breslin captures the rough, red-meat world of professional sports in the first half of the 20th century: the vivid personalities, the cheats, the chiselers, the drunks, the dandies, the gentlemen and the bums.
Breslin's style may not be to every taste. Sometimes you catch yourself yearning for a straightforward sentence, one that doesn't dip and tilt and spin and try to outsmart you before finally skidding to a halt at the period. The author is present on every page, like a manager who just won't stay in the dugout and let the players play the game. In the end, though, this is a seriously entertaining book, and a grand tribute to the man who became baseball's conscience.