While most people probably regard Branch Rickey as just a baseball general manager, what he did in April 1947 borders on the revolutionary - not just in baseball but in life. Long before the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., in an era of Jim Crow laws, Rickey introduced Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player in the major leagues. What Rickey did required uncommon courage, and Jimmy Breslin presents Rickey’s story with verve, wit and a keen sense of the zeitgeist that was America in the 1940s.
When Rickey took over as the general manager of the beleaguered Brooklyn Dodgers, he realized that the only way to make the team competitive was to recruit good players. This meant that he was amenable to black players joining the team to bring their speed and versatility to the game. Rickey knew that he faced an uphill battle in getting a black player in the major leagues. He had to fight the Dodgers’ owners, the State of New York, and the entire baseball establishment. But Rickey was used to big fights. He had done that earlier when he created the farm system for the St. Louis Browns, a precursor to today’s minor league system.
Although the result is well known – that Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 – Breslin lays out the story in fine detail with a number of interesting detours. Unforgettable characters populate the slim book – George the Fifth (so named because of his predilection for a fifth of whiskey) – and singular vignettes set the tone for the denouement.
Branch Rickey’s role in integrating baseball is well chronicled, and Breslin has no access to any new sources of information. Instead, what Breslin does is take an oft-told story, sprinkle it with amusing anecdotes, and write the entire narrative in a witty style that gives the book its punch. At 147 pages, this is a slim hardcover, but the book more than punches above its weight with its tone and writing.