Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
by Lee Lowenfish
Nebraska, 688 pp., $34.95
When not scouting baseball players or selling them, Branch Rickey could often be found speechifying. One of his favorite stories concerned a "superannuated" small-town minister who had these words inscribed on his wife's tombstone: "She was more to me than I expected." A master of timing (whether unloading a ballplayer or telling a story), Rickey waited for the laughter to subside before adding that he never learned what the minister did expect, but could "echo his sentiment insofar as Brooklyn is concerned."
While baseball's holy trinity of Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and the Brooklyn Dodgers has long been part of American folklore, the Brooklyn phase of Rickey's tumultuous baseball life actually occupied a bare eight years (1942-50) during which his Dodgers won but two pennants and no world championships. The whole of that life included stretches as a player, scout, manager, general manager, part-owner, and consultant, not to mention his permanent roles as the game's chief tinkerer, innovator, and seer.
Chronologically speak ing, Rickey sandwiched better than a quarter-century (of more than occasional success) in St. Louis and five years (of complete failure) in Pittsburgh around his Brooklyn interlude. Still, that borough--or at least the plot of ground called Ebbets Field--probably did give him more than he expected.
Similar sentiments can be said about the life of "baseball's ferocious gentleman." As we mark the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the color line in major league baseball, it's fair to conclude that Jackie Robinson turned out to be more than Branch Rickey had expected, that Rickey proved to be more than Lee Lowenfish expected, and that this biography will exceed his readers' expectations.
Not that Rickey was without his critics, or his full-blown enemies. After all, if even gentlemen have critics and enemies, imagine how many of each a "ferocious gentleman" might generate. Rickey himself is responsible for the adjective, as his ideal baseball team would be a roster full of "ferocious gentlemen." Pepper Martin of his Cardinals Gas House Gang personified the type. A Rickey favorite, Martin would "spend all day trying to beat you, and then stay up all night trying to make you well." Lowenfish sees Rickey in a similar light: He "combined a lust for competition and excellence with genuine warmth, humor, and compassion."
The key word here is "genuine," especially since Rickey's enemies regarded him as a hypocrite, perhaps even a ferocious one. Chief among them were baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who opposed Rickey's "chain gang" farm system; and Brooklyn's devil incarnate, Walter O'Malley, who forced Rickey out of the Dodger front office in 1950 and later fled the friendly confines of Brooklyn for the wide-open (parking) spaces of Los Angeles. To Landis and O'Malley, Rickey was a "psalm-singing faker."
Lee Lowenfish begs to differ. Over the course of a biography that threatens to extend into endless extra innings but doesn't, Lowenfish paints a much more complicated and, therefore, a much more fascinating picture. One guesses that Branch Rickey was many things that Lee Lowenfish is not. A conservative and a Republican, Rickey was also a staunch anti-Communist, a tough-minded businessman, and a believing Christian. Despite all of the above, Lowenfish has clearly been captivated by Rickey and by what might be termed the Rickey spell. Thus fascinated, Lowenfish has been able to communicate that fascination to readers.
A complex character, Rickey was also the real deal. There is no doubt he was out to make a good living for his family and profits for his franchises. That stipulated, he was also out to make the world--or at least a small corner of it--a better place by ridding baseball of a wrong that the right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler called the "craziest wrong in America." All of that invited charges of hypocrisy then and generates cynicism still. And yet Lowenfish genuinely does beg to differ, recognizing the genuine article that Rickey was.
Forty-plus years after his death in 1965, Rickey's life continues to provide an occasion for pondering the dual histories of race relations and how to improve race relations in America. Rickey was no utopian, but he was guided by his Christian principles, his complete (and genuine) color-blindedness, and his belief that a free society was the best guarantor of a virtuous society. "Proximity" was among the polysyllabic-prone Rickey's favorite words: He thought placing blacks and whites in genuine proximity with one another would gradually spell improved relations between them. How best to achieve that goal has always been the question.
Rickey was that unique combination of Christian who thought it ought to be done, period; conservative who believed it should be done privately; capitalist who presumed that it would benefit his bottom line; and optimist who understood that it would gradually make the baseball world a better, fairer, and more competitive place. And once baseball began to get it right, could the rest of America be far behind?
Lee Lowenfish may not be that optimistic, but he is more than willing to give Rickey credit where credit is due. His Branch Rickey was a risk-taker and an opportunity-seeker, whose signing of Robinson made the Dodgers the first of "America's teams," and one which finally gave the borough of Brooklyn a world championship in 1955. By that point Rickey was on his way out in Pittsburgh, but Robinson was still a Dodger. As a Dodger, Robinson proved to be all that Rickey had expected and more. Not only was this ferocious gentleman a college man, an army veteran, an observant Christian, and a fine athlete, but Jackie Robinson also turned out to be the best two-strike hitter that Rickey had ever seen.
Sometimes doing the right thing reaped unanticipated benefits, even if Walter O'Malley and not Branch Rickey was the chief beneficiary. Nonetheless, it is worth wondering what Rickey might have done had he still been running the Dodgers as an aging Jackie Robinson's skills diminished. Would he have dealt Robinson before that championship season of 1955? Who knows?
What can be asserted is that timing is always important, whether peddling ballplayers or spinning yarns. A raconteur famous for his unsculpted aphorisms, Rickey thought it was better to "trade a ballplayer a year too early rather than a year too late." By that standard, Robinson should have been an ex-Dodger by no later than 1953. Then again, the man who was known to say that "luck is nothing more than the residue of design" might have been lucky enough, and smart enough, to keep the "ferocious gentleman" who had always been--and given--more than anyone had ever expected.
John C. Chalberg is the author of Rickey and Robinson: The Preacher, the Player, and America's Game.