Book Review: Branch Rickey, Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman

Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman
By Lee Lowenfish (University of Nebraska Press, $34.95)

For all his revolutionary ideas and innovative concepts, Branch Rickey was a man of contradictions. He was brought up a strict Methodist and considered himself god-like, although others considered him sanctimonious. As a promise to his mother he never set foot in a ballpark on Sunday, but he had no problem with collecting the gate receipts from games played on the Sabbath.  He signed Jackie Robinson, thereby breaking the color-barrier, but paid no compensation to Robinson’s Negro League team.

He paid his players poorly, but he profited handsomely from the sales of those players because of the immense talent his farm systems consistently produced. In one of many legendary stories in the book, Rickey refuses not only to give Pirates All-Star Ralph Kiner a raise after he leads the National League in homers, but wants Kiner to take a pay cut. “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you,” explained Rickey.

In over 50 years as a player, college instructor, manager, executive, owner and league founder, Rickey’s imprints are all over baseball. He was destined to be a leader by the accounts of his first job – schoolteacher to the notoriously tough students in Turkey Creek, Ohio. On his first day on the job writes Lowenfish, “17 year-old Branch Rickey thought he could meet the challenge of Turkey Creek’s belligerent youngsters, but he was being tested early.

“Do you think you can run me out of my job?” said schoolteacher Rickey to a defiant student. “Well, you can’t do it. I need the money. I need the job, so sit down!” It was a harbinger of how Rickey would deal with everyone from Kenesaw Mountain Landis to Walter O’Malley.

Lowenfish weaves the American trifecta of God, family and baseball into Rickey’s fascinating life. The significant moments that forever changed the landscape of baseball are all well documented, researched and detailed. So too is the portrait of a man whose life is itself a crucial part of our society and history.