Branch Rickey was a curious mixture of qualities.
He was the guy who came up with a plan to integrate Major League Baseball, and, thanks in large part to Jackie Robinson and Happy Chandler, the Commissioner of Baseball who stepped out of the way of the train Rickey was driving, the plan worked.
Rickey felt integrating baseball was his obligation as a Christian.
Bill Veeck and several other people, some of them reporters and at least one of them a Communist and proud of it, had previously agitated for the inclusion of black players in what was most decidedly not "America's game" at the time, since Americans who were not white could not play it at the most lucrative levels. But they failed, and Branch Rickey succeeded, and for that, Jimmy Breslin credits Rickey with "sticking his hand into the troubled history of America and fixing it."
But as Breslin also points out in Branch Rickey, his most recent book, the general manager of the Dodgers was not averse to making money. Breslin compares baseball's farm system, which Rickey invented, to the institution of slavery. According to the rules established by Rickey, he could buy and sell players at his whim, and he banked a healthy percentage of each transaction.
Jimmy Breslin is also a fellow of many parts, all of which qualify him as the appropriate biographer of Branch Rickey. Breslin admires the canny pirate in Rickey almost as much as he respects the fellow whose energies brought change to baseball and to the country where the game was doing business.
And, of course, Breslin is a terrific writer. Of Branch Rickey's distress with Johnny Mize, who played for the Cardinals when Rickey was the general manager in St. Louis, Breslin writes:
Mize had led the league in batting and slugging. That he ran quite slowly was a drawback, except the Cardinals had so much speed that the team could accommodate a man with no feet. But then Rickey saw that Mize had developed a new flaw: he had grown an agent.
In the middle of a paragraph that describes in a workman-like manner the day upon which Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth traveled to Chicago to see Jackie Robinson play for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs, Breslin includes this sentence:
He was not traveling merely to see a baseball player, even a great player, for even these are merely bodies that one day run fast and then run slow before fading into memory.
When I spoke with Jimmy Breslin, I asked him if perhaps after writing that sentence, he'd paused for a moment to admire it.
He told me he wrote for money, so there was no pausing.
Read Branch Rickey. Read everything else Jimmy Breslin has written, too.
This segment aired on March 19, 2011.