Branch Rick­ey: Base­bal­l’s Fero­cious Gentleman

Lee Lowen­fish
  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

Per­sons of high achieve­ment often engen­der jeal­ousy, which leads to deri­sive com­ments about how lucky they have been. Often, how­ev­er, their luck is the residue of design,” in the words of Branch Rick­ey, who is the sub­ject of Lee Lowenfish’s com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy of an accom­plished, com­plex, Amer­i­can orig­i­nal. Ath­lete, coach, gen­er­al man­ag­er, own­er, and base­ball vision­ary are some of the ways to describe Rick­ey, but there are oth­er descrip­tors as well: patri­ot, leader, cap­i­tal­ist, moral­ist, skin­flint, polit­i­cal con­ser­v­a­tive, Chris­t­ian, prag­ma­tist, and pioneer. 

In Branch Rick­ey, Lee Lowen­fish has writ­ten a thor­ough­ly researched, engross­ing biog­ra­phy of a man whose influ­ence on Amer­i­ca sur­passed his achieve­ment in sports. Rick­ey is best remem­bered for his deter­mined pur­suit of jus­tice for black Amer­i­cans. His courage in break­ing baseball’s col­or line, thus pro­vid­ing African Amer­i­cans with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate tal­ent and in more mun­dane terms to find work to sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies, was exceed­ed only by the courage of Jack Roo­sevelt Robin­son, who was spe­cial­ly select­ed by Rick­ey for his role as racial trail­blaz­er because of his ath­leti­cism, intel­li­gence, and self-dis­ci­pline. This was a for­tu­itous con­flu­ence of imag­i­na­tion and com­mit­ment, for both Rick­ey and Robin­son became part­ners in a peace­ful civ­il rev­o­lu­tion whose ram­i­fi­ca­tions nei­ther of them could envi­sion at the time. Amer­i­ca is a dif­fer­ent nation today, in part because of what Rick­ey and Robin­son start­ed with the sim­ple bold­ness,” in Rickey’s words, about things I say I believe, even to the point of rashness.” 

Rick­ey was made for a Brook­lyn of mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion, and Brook­lyn in the 1940’s was the ide­al set­ting for Rickey’s genius. Home to the dis­placed, both those emerg­ing from the camps of Europe and those who migrat­ed north from the bla­tant prej­u­dice of the south, Brook­lyn was recep­tive to a base­ball team fea­tur­ing the oth­er,” and hos­pitable to the striv­ings of the dis­en­fran­chised. And whether based on his fis­cal acu­men or moral ground­ing, Rick­ey pro­duced an achiev­ing orga­ni­za­tion that appealed to Brooklyn’s spir­it of jus­tice and competition. 

For base­ball fans, ample atten­tion is giv­en to pen­nant races and the minu­ti­ae of build­ing win­ning orga­ni­za­tions in St. Louis and Brook­lyn, and then weak­er teams in Pitts­burgh. Rickey’s fer­tile mind led to his lead­er­ship of the still­born Con­ti­nen­tal League that spawned baseball’s expan­sion to Min­neso­ta and New York, Hous­ton and Flori­da. He also cre­at­ed the farm sys­tem and Spring train­ing mod­els that we now take for grant­ed. But Branch Rickey’s influ­ence, tran­scend­ing sport, con­tin­ues to be felt, four decades after his death at age 83.

Lowen­fish has illu­mi­nat­ed one man’s life. In so doing, he reveals much about 20th cen­tu­ry America.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

Discussion Questions