So many unforgettably drawn characters populate Jimmy Breslin's wonderful new Branch Rickey biography that they seemingly threaten to burst the book's slim binding. There is the scout who could "go out for coffee and come back with a second baseman," the alcoholic sportswriter whose "breath requires corking," the manager with "a temper that made the slightest confrontation suggest Verdun."
Most of all, though, there is Rickey, who rose from a poor Ohio town to become perhaps baseball's greatest innovator and humanist. In his 40 years as a manager—with four clubs, most notably the Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers—Rickey invented the modern farm system, discovered such Hall of Famers as George Sisler and Duke Snider, and even gave the Cardinals their first birds-on-the-bat logo. Of course, the greatest achievement of this principled but savvy man was his determination to find the right player, the right person, to integrate major league baseball, which Breslin describes as then being a "sport for hillbillies with great eyesight." "I don't know who he is or where he is," Breslin finds Rickey saying in 1945, "but he is coming." That person came two years later, and he was Jackie Robinson.
The Rickey-Robinson story has been told before, but never as colorfully or entertainingly as it is by Breslin. At age 80 the Pulitzer Prize winner still produces the punchy prose, full of flawed heroes and virtueless villains, that earned him his reputation as a literary lion. "The Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey," he writes of one Robinson obstacle, would spend "years keeping blacks off his teams and he got what he deserved, which was nothing." In another passage Breslin re-creates Rickey's convincing Dodgers owner George V. McLaughlin—known as George the Fifth, for his love of drink—that his club should field the league's first black player, including McLaughlin's promise: "If this doesn't work for money, you're sunk."
Breslin's Branch Rickey is all good, all 146 pages of it. You might read a longer baseball book this year, but you won't read a better one.