30 baseball books in 30 days of ’11: Day 15 — Short and sweet, Breslin on Rickey

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The book: “Branch Rickey: Penguin Lives Biographies”

The author: Jimmy Breslin

The vital stats: The Penguin Group/Viking Adult books, 160 pages, $19.95.

Find it: At the publisher’s website (linked here), as well as at Powells’ (linked here), Amazon.com (linked here) and Barnes & Noble (linked here).

The pitch: Consider that in 2009, “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman” by Lee Lowenfish came in at nearly 800 pages and more than two pounds. It took him more than 10 years to research it. And almost as long to read.

Yet Breslin’s version, about 1/6th the size, may be richer in context and content. Believe it.

On the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, this one reminds us that often less is more, and there couldn’t be a more beautifully written multi-part magazine piece that was lucky enough to be bound in glory.

In this “Penguin Lives” series, they’ve got people like Roy Blount Jr. writing on Robert E. Lee, Mary Gordon telling the story of Joan of Arc, Garry Willis on Saint Augustine and Sherwin B. Nuland on Leonardo da Vinci. So how did the Pulitzer Prize winning Breslin, most famous in sports circles for writing “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” about Casey Stengel, come upon Rickey?

From the prologue:
“When they ask me to write a book about a Great American, right away I say yes. When I say yes I always mean no. They ask me to choose a subject, and I say Branch Rickey. He placed the first black baseball player into the major leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson. He helped clear the sidewalks for Barack Obama to come into the White House. As it only happened once in the whole history of the country, I would say that is pretty good. Then some editors told me they never hear of Rickey. Which I took as an insult, a distain for what I know, as if it is not important enough for them to bother with. So now I had to write the book.”

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The young editors have no excuse for not knowing now. Even at 135 pages. (For cryin’ out loud, at least watch the movie).

In today’s short-attention-span theatre, Breslin on Rickey is made for the masses, and goes against the grain at the same time. Why get bogged down in weighted research when a classic American author like Breslin can get the job done in quick order?

If you’re keeping track of some of the classic lines that Breslin generates from this one, start with his explanation of how he intended to do some research on Rickey’s life:

“I figured I would be able to rely on big-name historians whom I have yet to read and that this would be immensely pleasurable. And then I read the books. History writers should be put not in the jail but under it.”

As for how this ties with the annual Jackie Robinson Day activities today, consider Chapter 2, pages 17-26. Breslin deviates from anything Rickey and gets into the arrest of Robinson while he was in the U.S. Army in 1944, court-martialed for not moving to the back of a bus when ordered by the driver. Breslin reprints the statements in the case made by the driver, another black woman that Robinson sat next to, another witness, a general from the MP guard room, and finally, Robinson. The language is course, the situation compelling, and all the raw material there in front of the reader, you’re given extreme insight into Robinson’s character, and what Rickey had to work with in his nobel pursuit.

But back to Rickey, according to Breslin:

From page 114:

“(In 1949), Robinson was named the Most Valuable Player, which was an understatement. Behind him, applauding, crying compliments, was Rickey. He did a great thing in American life, yet he was mortal. He soon came to illustrate perfectly the mutual envy of politicans and businessmen. The politician can not restrain himself from taking his brilliance into the world of business. Before long, he is on a breadline. The businessman is sure that he can run the world, and given a chance he is out there on th epublic stage. Soon the people are ready to garrote him. The wise shoemaker sticks to his trade and maintains a mouth filled with nails. That was not to be Rickey or Robinson.”

Not to give away how Breslin ties it all together with the Obama angle from his prologue, but the book ends in 2008, at a polling place, inside Jackie Robinson Elementary School, across the street from the old Ebbets Field, with him watching even more history taking place.

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How it goes down in the scorebook: The fear was that this could have been some kind of Andy Rooney-esque rambling remembrance, just for posterities’s sake. Far from it. This was our pleasure. In as economic a sentence as we can write: Read, savor, smile.

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