Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Review of Murray Polner's Branch Rickey: A Biography (McFarland, 2007); and Lee Lowenfish's Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Feb 25, 2008 12:40 am

Ron Briley: Review of Murray Polner's Branch Rickey: A Biography (McFarland, 2007); and Lee Lowenfish's Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

During this long winter of discontent, baseball fans might escape from the latest steroids allegation to another, but not necessarily more innocent, era in baseball history with two biographies of legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey, whose career with the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates stretched from 1913 into the 1960s. Basing their research upon interviews with Rickey’s family, friends, and associates, as well as research into the voluminous Rickey Papers, biographers Murray Polner and Lee Lowenfish describe Rickey as a conservative, self-made capitalist who was guided by his love of family and the Christian principles of his Methodist faith. While Rickey’s detractors insist that the baseball executive’s motivation in challenging the sport’s color barrier and bringing Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn was essentially to exploit a new source of cheap talent from the Negro Leagues, Polner and Lowenfish maintain that Rickey’s primary goal was to promote equality of opportunity in the sport he loved. Polner and Lowenfish give credence to one of Rickey’s favorite stories from when he was coaching college baseball at Ohio Wesleyan University at the turn of the twentieth century. Rickey often recalled that he could never forget the scene of African-American Charles Thomas attempting to rub the color off his skin after being refused accommodations with his white teammates. Rickey vowed to do everything within his power to challenge prejudice in American life.

Rickey’s early years are best developed in the volume by Polner, which was originally published by Atheneum in 1982. Polner, whose body of work includes a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan as well as studies of other antiwar patriots in American history, nevertheless, finds the nationalistic Rickey’s rise from humble origins in rural Ohio admirable and in the best tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s self-made man working hard and exercising frugality. Rickey’s father reluctantly granted his son permission to leave the family farm and pursue an education at Ohio Wesleyan University, where Rickey supported his studies by coaching baseball and football. Rickey married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Moulton, whose affluent parents did not approve of baseball as a career option. Rickey earned a law degree from the University of Michigan while coaching the Wolverines baseball club. He survived a bout with tuberculosis, but Rickey’s early practice in Idaho attracted few clients. Instead, Rickey would find a lucrative career in baseball management. Polner observes that Rickey’s early life convinced the future baseball executive that hard work was the key to success. Like many self-made men, he concluded that poverty was the result of personal failure; becoming a strong supporter of Herbert Hoover’s rugged individualism as opposed to what Rickey perceived as the welfare state of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Despite his outstanding work ethic, Rickey’s early baseball career was rather undistinguished. As a catcher for the St. Louis Browns and New York Highlanders, Rickey hit for only a .239 batting average. Browns owner Robert Hedges, however, was impressed by the young player’s religious principles which forbid alcohol consumption and playing baseball on the Sabbath. Hedges brought Rickey into manage the Browns in 1913, but Rickey enjoyed little success in guiding the team into the first division; leaving the team when new ownership took over the club. Although in his 30s with a young family, which eventually included five girls and a son, Rickey demonstrated his patriotism by volunteering for service during World War I. He was commissioned a Colonel in a chemical training unit that saw action in France near the war’s conclusion.

Following the war, Rickey returned to St. Louis, where he served as team president and manger of the Cardinals. He relinquished the team presidency in 1920 to new Cardinals majority owner Sam Breadon, a successful auto dealer with whom Rickey would experience a tumultuous relationship. In fact, Breadon fired Rickey as the Cardinals manager in 1925; replacing him with player-manager Rogers Hornsby who led the team to a world championship in 1926. Polner and Lowenfish argue that Rickey’s intensity and analytical approach to the game were better suited to the front office where he continued to serve with the Cardinals.

Rickey’s long tenure with the Cardinals from 1925 to 1942 is best developed in Lowenfish’s detailed biography which devotes approximately one-third of almost 600 pages of text to Rickey’s years with the Cardinals. Similar to Polner, Lowenfish, whose progressive baseball principles are well documented in The Imperfect Diamond (1991), also finds himself admiring the work of the often political reactionary Rickey. As vice-president and business manager of the Cardinals, Rickey presided over one of baseball’s most successful franchises during the difficult depression years. The Cardinals, a fiery group termed the “Gas House Gang,” won National League pennants in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, and 1942. Rickey often wrangled with stars such as Dizzy Dean over contracts, and the Cardinal executive gained a reputation for frugality in his player negotiations. While Rickey and Dean were often engaged in public quarrels, Polner and Lowenfish note the irony that the pious Rickey had far more patience with the pugnacious Leo Durocher, whose reputation for drinking, gambling, and womanizing was well established. Perhaps the fact that Dean appealed to rely on natural ability rather than hard work was less appealing to Rickey than the fact that Durocher got the most out of his limited talent.

Usually an ardent supporter of competitive capitalism, Rickey, nevertheless, made an exception for baseball’s reserve system which the executive employed to establish an elaborate farm system of players under the exclusive control of the Cardinals. Rickey would sell the contracts of players whom the Cardinals did not need; enjoying a percentage of the selling price for himself. While not exactly a champion of labor, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, nevertheless, opposed Rickey’s farm system. In the so-called 1938 Cedar Rapids decision, Landis freed 74 Cardinal farm players, arguing that the farm system developed by Rickey limited the options of players and hindered the development of the minor leagues. On the other hand, both Polner and Lowenfish agree with Rickey’s conclusion that working agreements with major league clubs were essential for the survival of minor league franchises. The Cedar Rapids decision also contributed to increasing discord within the Cardinals front office. Rickey was upset that Sam Breadon would not support a challenge to the Landis ruling, while the owner wanted to assert more direct control over the ball club. Accordingly, Rickey’s contract was not renewed following the Cardinals 1942 World Championship.

But a new opportunity was available in Brooklyn, and Rickey assumed the position of general manager and president of the Dodgers. Polner and Lowenfish document that Rickey immediately began to lay the foundation for signing a black player. The biographers provide little information on the issue of race with Rickey in St. Louis. The assumption seems to be that segregation in St. Louis prevented Rickey from instituting his great experiment in that city. Polner and Lowenfish conclude that Rickey’s interest in the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers and the United States League was essentially a smokescreen to evaluate black talent; culminating in the signing of Jackie Robinson. In their enthusiasm for Rickey’s defiance of baseball’s color line, Polner and Lowenfish accept the executive’s explanation that he did not compensate the Kansas City Monarchs for Robinson due to the chaotic conditions of the Negro Leagues. Rickey asserted that Robinson did not have a valid contract with the Royals at the time of his signing with the Dodgers.

In hindsight, the 1947 baseball season is best known for Robinson’s courage in shattering baseball’s color line, but as Polner and Lowenfish remind us, much of Rickey’s attention on the eve of that pivotal year was focused upon the decision of Baseball Commissioner A. B. “Happy” Chandler to suspend Dodger manager Leo Durocher for his gambling associations and the notoriety of his marriage to actress Laraine Day following her recent divorce. The Durocher distraction and a continuing feud with New York Yankees executive Lee MacPhail did not prevent Rickey from confronting the baseball establishment with the signing of other black athletes such as Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.

While Rickey deserves the praise bestowed by Polner and Lowenfish for integrating major league baseball, his approach to integration was certainly limited. Rickey resented outside pressures from politicians and the government as well as what he considered to be outside agitators such as the Communist Party. Integration would need to be voluntary, gradual, and guided by sympathetic whites. Rickey’s plan perhaps made some sense for baseball in Brooklyn following the Second World War, but the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the South demonstrates the shortcomings of this approach. An aggressive grass roots movement through boycotts and direct action finally forced the federal government to abolish de jure segregation. And Rickey’s conservatism was certainly not prepared to address the de facto segregation and intersection between race and class perpetuated by the legacy of slavery and racism. In fact, Lowenfish even speculates that Jackie Robinson’s vote for Richard Nixon in 1960 and emergence as a Rockefeller Republican was due to the influence of Rickey.

The infusion of black talent into Brooklyn, however, was important in establishing the Dodgers as the dominant team in the National League during the 1950s. Nevertheless, Rickey’s job was in jeopardy. Despite the Dodgers winning the pennant in 1947 and 1949, partner Walter O’Malley, pointing to Rickey’s spending habits such as a disastrous investment in the football Brooklyn Dodgers, was able to force Rickey out of Brooklyn in 1950.

Although he was 69 years old, Rickey was hired to rebuild the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rickey believed that with his work ethic and ability to evaluate baseball talent, he could lift the Pirates from the National League basement. After five frustrating years in Pittsburgh, Rickey was relieved from his post as general manger. Nevertheless, Rickey did sign players such as Dick Groat and Roberto Clemente who would lead the Pirates to a World Series victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. In 1959, Rickey, refusing to slow down in his 70s, accepted a position as president of the Continental League. While the threat of a new league resulted in expansion and inclusion of some Continental League franchises in the major leagues, Lowenfish perceives Rickey as believing that a third league could have been implemented.

Rickey’s final experience with professional baseball was not a positive one. In 1963, he returned to the St. Louis Cardinals as a special consultant to owner Gussie Busch. Rickey’s presence led to dissention in the team’s front office, and he was dismissed following the team’s 1964 World Championship. But Rickey still maintained an active life, serving as a public speaker and completing his baseball memoir, The American Diamond. Rickey collapsed in the middle of a speech before the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He was in a coma for a month before expiring on December 9, 1965.

As biographers Polner and Lowenfish demonstrate, there is much to celebrate in the life of Branch Rickey. He deserves credit for pioneering baseball’s farm system and having the courage to sign Jackie Robinson. The interviews with Rickey’s children and grandchildren indicate that he was a wonderful family man, although Polner suggests that he placed considerable pressure upon his son Branch, Jr., who died from diabetes in his early 40s. Although recognized for his tough negotiating on salaries, Rickey was generous to his friends. Polner and Lowenfish conclude in their excellent biographies that Rickey was a self-made man and a conservative Republican who, nonetheless, believed in equal opportunity. Polner and Lowenfish are excellent scholars and historians. Lowenfish’s lengthy and well-written biography should remain the definitive study of Rickey, but readers preferring a shorter text would do well to consult Polner.

Nevertheless, it is worth countering that Rickey included some of the worse characteristics of the self-made man. Despite the best efforts of Polner and Lowenfish, this reviewer still finds Rickey to be somewhat of a sanctimonious windbag. While clearly a believer in equality of opportunity, Rickey’s approach to racial integration was essentially a patronizing one; relying less on grass roots action and more on volunteerism and gradualism to address the historical legacy of slavery and racism. Although Rickey loved to talk, he often demonstrated little respect for the free speech of others, such as reporters or union organizers, who questioned his prerogatives. And in his fervent anti-communism, Rickey encouraged the intolerance of McCarthyism. He referred to critics of the reserve clause as fostering the principles of communism. Yet, this champion of the free enterprise system employed the reserve clause to restrict the economic opportunity of players. Rickey lived in luxury, while athletes sought off-season jobs to support their families. Of course, this economic imbalance has been addressed in recent decades with the emergence of the players’ union and abolishment of the reserve system. In fact, many would argue that in light of the Mitchell Report and steroids issue, we need a return to the strict morality of a Branch Rickey. But it is well worth noting that is baseball ownership like Rickey, urging athletes to play through pain such as Preacher Roe in the 1949 World Series, which helped get the sport into this mess. Despite the noble efforts of Polner and Lowenfish, the legacy of Branch Rickey will likely remain a contested one.

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