This spring, Jimmy Breslin steps out of the bullpen with a terrific biography of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Rickey would have been enshrined in baseball history merely for his ingenuity in inventing the farm system. But he’s also remembered as the visionary who brought Jackie Robinson, and an entire race, into baseball in 1947. Breslin’s “Branch Rickey” (Viking, $19.95) is a near-poetic celebration of the man and his courage, and it is also a reminder of the virtuosity of Jimmy Breslin.
Writers strain for years to produce a single memorable phrase, but Breslin manages two in the course of three sentences. Try this on: “You held the American heart in your hand when you attempted to change anything in baseball.” Then this: “Baseball was a sport for hillbillies with great eyesight.”
Breslin understands Rickey and shows that Rickey himself understood what was at stake when he made his daring hire:
“Robinson caused the gravest of all fears: what if this black man makes it and then there is another one after him and soon a third and fourth and more, then what will happen to our way of life, this national pastime, if these players take everything and the whites we applauded turned out not to be so great and wound up working in Southern gas stations?”
Tough luck. Rickey did it, and not on a lark. He had a plan. First he’d bring on Robinson, then he’d go with the catcher Roy Campanella (himself the subject of a recent book, “Campy” by Neil Lanctot), and then the pitcher Don Newcombe. Suddenly Rickey was talking about a revolution and not a curiosity, and suddenly he was doing exactly what Breslin was talking about. He wasn’t only changing America’s sport. He was changing America.
The brilliance of Breslin’s book is that he writes about an event at the center of American sports history and yet makes his case with beguiling asides -- brush-back pitches, you might say -- that startle the reader with their perspicacity. Consider the notion that the farm system Rickey conceived was “modeled somewhat after the Southern system of slavery,” or the insight that Rickey possessed “a Midwestern Christian religious fervor as strong as a wheat crop, and a political faith in anything Republican.”
Charyn on DiMaggio
Now for the closers, both beauties. First is Jerome Charyn’s “Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil” (Yale, $24), and even if you’ve read a handful of DiMaggio books there’s real value to this one. It’s an attempt, maybe the best yet, to explain Joltin’ Joe and, inevitably, his love for, and then his obsession with, Marilyn Monroe: “With her and her alone he recaptured at least a little of that mysterious grace he had on the field.”
Then there’s Mark Kurlansky’s “Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One” (Yale, $25), another meditation on heroism, baseball and individuality. While DiMaggio loved being a hero, Greenberg didn’t understand it, especially the part about being the great Jewish American hero. Kurlansky argues that “he never accepted the definition of himself that some of his Jewish fans had cut out for him.”
Nonetheless, one record still stands. Sandy Koufax wasn’t the first Jewish star to sit out Yom Kippur. Hank Greenberg was, in 1934. You could look it up.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)