Branch Rickey And Jackie Robinson Interview Essay

P: Mr. Breslin, thanks so much for being with us.

JIMMY BRESLIN: Good. I'm here.

: Yeah, you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Indeed, and it's good to have you here, sir.

BRESLIN: Yeah

: Branch Rickey ran the St. Louis Cardinals right before he came to Brooklyn.

BRESLIN: Yeah.

: And had no interest - made attempt to integrate baseball when he ran the Cardinals. What made him do it when he took over the team in Brooklyn?

BRESLIN: Come on. Amateur talent. He came to the only place you could do anything, Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn's towers were in the Atlantic Ocean where everybody came from, from Ireland, from Italy, large numbers of people from Africa, from South America. You had this large population in New York City that thought and felt and said it was worse than anybody, anybody ever, any group ever anywhere, but they could be maneuvered and Rickey could do it.

: Yeah. Branch Rickey was certainly a religious man.

BRESLIN: Mm-hmm.

: Did he want to do something good or did he want to win something big by integrating baseball?

BRESLIN: Oh, I think he, you do it for God and you also do it to win the World Series. Why can't you do both at once?

: Tell us about the meeting he had with a man who I guess was on the board of the Dodgers named George V. McLaughlin.

BRESLIN: George McLaughlin, with all the bigotry in him, cast it out immediately at the idea that he could make money with it, and he actively pushed with Rickey the idea of putting Jackie Robinson into baseball. What do you think he was doing it for? For love? He told Rickey don't put principle into this. We're looking for cake, admissions. But see, but let me get to Rickey now.

: Yeah.

BRESLIN: He could see that quality in McLaughlin, that he couldn't resist the idea of making money. He could see that in McLaughlin and he cashed in on that immediately.

: Yeah. Was there something that set Ricky apart from other general managers at the time, who certainly must've figured out that if any team was quick to beat the Yankees, the largest unsigned pool of talent in baseball were players who were in the Negro leagues.

BRESLIN: Oh, I don't think they could see that. These were dumb people. I don't think there was a level of intellect in the whole business. It was wide open for Rickey.

: Help us understand what difference Jackie Robinson made to the Dodgers when he arrived and started playing.

BRESLIN: Well, the batting average. I mean the obvious things. But that other people were calling him the N name and he inspired them to come to his defense.

: Yeah. Now rallied the team, made them even better?

BRESLIN: They realized they were going to win and they could wind up in a World Series and getting big checks; this guy, we better be with him.

: Yeah. And we'll note the Dodgers, of course, won the pennant in '47, '49, '50.

BRESLIN: Yeah. Yeah.

: So many of the years that followed Jackie Robinson's addition to the team.

BRESLIN: Sure.

: And finally won a World Series. Was Branch Rickey as tight with the buck as some of his players used to complain?

BRESLIN: Oh, he very well could be. You mentioned he did start a great thing called the farm system in baseball, and he had to baseball players signed and then they could be sold to other Major League teams all over the country, and Rickey took 10 percent of the sales prices because there was hundreds of thousands of dollars came into his pocket from this farm system and he didn't seem to spread it anyplace. He kept it in his pocket.

: You mean literally kept it in his pocket?

BRESLIN: Well, no. A pocket being a bank and would put it in a bank some place.

: Well, I meant kept it as opposed to keeping it for the team.

BRESLIN: He came up with this idea for a farm system.

: Mm-hmm.

BRESLIN: He got the players; he sold them, and got the money for it. Now he's supposed to turn around and give it to you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: No, sir.

BRESLIN: What are you? What is this? Where are you from?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Chicago.

BRESLIN: Yeah. Well, then go back to Chicago and get your money there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: All right. I think I...

BRESLIN: We're in Brooklyn on Montague Street.

: Okay. I think I understand that. Has there been any general manager since Branch Rickey that you know about that kind of had his vision either for baseball or the country?

BRESLIN: Who had his vision anywhere, not just the crummy baseball team.

: Mm-hmm.

BRESLIN: What American business had a view of life like that? Nobody. He changed the world with his view and he was the only one that had it. He's an amazing mind.

: Mr. Breslin, thanks so much for all your time.

BRESLIN: Thank you.

: Jimmy Breslin, his new book part of the Distinguished Penguin Lives series is "Branch Rickey."

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Above all, Breslin insists, Rickey was a businessman, and his genius lay in developing the best talent for the least money. He invented the farm system, which “gathered players of promise and grew them, like crops, on minor league teams. . . . The practice was modeled somewhat after the Southern system of slavery.” Farm clubs not only helped the Cardinals, they also made Rickey a rich man. With so much talent on hand, he sold players to other organizations at a personal commission of 10 percent. And his contract talks — a lawyer jousting with the barely educated — were painfully one-sided. Dizzy Dean, the league’s best pitcher, recalled going to see Rickey about a small loan. “He didn’t give me any money,” Dean confessed. “All I got was a lecture on sex.”

In Brooklyn, Rickey shifted gears. The team needed better players, which its farm system was unable to provide. So he looked elsewhere, to the Negro leagues, where talent abounded. His first task was to find the right man to break the color line. “I don’t know who he is, or where he is,” Rickey told Red Barber, the Dodgers’ radio announcer, “but he is coming.”

The story is familiar. Breslin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a master of the spare narrative. His strength lies in the telling, not in the research. Until Rickey came to Brooklyn, he writes, “baseball was a sport for hillbillies with great eyesight.” While Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best player in the Negro leagues, his background clearly set him apart. A four-sport athlete at U.C.L.A., he was well educated, soon to be married and quite comfortable playing on integrated teams. His main problem was his temper. As an Army lieutenant during World War II, he’d been accused of threatening a white driver who used a racial epithet while demanding he move to the back of a bus. At their legendary meeting in Brooklyn in 1945, Rickey, knowing full well what lay ahead for the first black major leaguer, peppered Robinson with racial slurs. “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asked. No, came the reply. “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson relented; Rickey found his pioneer.

Dodger fortunes changed almost overnight. Brooklyn, a borough of immigrant enclaves, welcomed Robinson as one of its own. And he responded to racial taunts on the road with truly spectacular play, winning rookie of the year honors in 1947. The Dodgers would soon come to dominate the National League, though Rickey would not be there to share the glory. Forced out in 1950 in another dispute over money, he moved on to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, creating the nucleus of yet another championship team. But his heart remained in Brooklyn, Breslin says, and his best work did, too. By the time the Dodgers won their first World Series, in 1955, there were four black players in the starting lineup — five when Don Newcombe took the mound. For Dodger fans, the long wait was over. “Next year” had finally arrived.

Had Rickey not chosen Jackie Robinson, he might have turned to Roy Campa­nella, the rifle-armed, power-hitting Negro league catcher who joined the Dodgers a year later, in 1948. Campanella was an extraordinary talent; he would win the Most Valuable Player award three times, and be voted into the Hall of Fame. What kept him from going first, Neil Lanctot says in “Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campa­nella,” a faithful if overstuffed biography, were the deficiencies common to most players of his era, black and white alike. Campy was a high school dropout. He loved the temptations of the road, despite having a wife and children at home. And there was something else: Campy, born to an African-American mother and an Italian-American father, may have been too fair-skinned for Rickey, who wanted no confusion surrounding the black man who would break the color line.

Campanella led two distinct lives, as the book’s subtitle suggests. The first one, as a baseball star, ended when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel of his car in 1958. The second one, as a quadriplegic, ended with his death in 1993 at the age of 71. Lanctot, a baseball historian, says that what these lives had in common was an absence of bravado and complaint. Campy was no crusader. He led quietly, by example, and he rarely rocked the boat.

The Dodgers of the 1950s were a team of stars: Robinson and Campa­nella, Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese. The clubhouse was cohesive, but the players socialized by race. Robinson and Campy became fast friends, rooming on the road, taking jobs together in the off-season and buying their first homes in the same neighborhood in Queens. Perhaps the best parts of “Campy” chart the breaking of their bond. Campanella’s son described his father as “the quintessential jock” who lived to play the game. Robinson, for his part, saw baseball as a means to larger ends. He pushed his reluctant black teammates to speak out against racism and to protest their exclusion from restaurants and hotels. Campy refused. “I’m a colored man,” he told a reporter. “A few years ago there were many more things I couldn’t do than I can today. I’m willing to wait.”

When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, the two men were barely speaking. Even Campa­nella’s car accident failed to end the feud. In 1963, Robinson invited black players to share their experiences for a book he was writing on civil rights and baseball. To his delight, Campy spoke passionately about what he had gone through and what needed to be done. “I am a Negro and I am part of this,” he said. “I feel it as deep as anyone, and so do my children.”

The two reconciled — one now in a wheelchair, the other ravaged by diabetes and heart disease. At Robinson’s funeral in 1972, Campy sat near the coffin, humming softly. He was at peace. The bond had been restored.

BRANCH RICKEY

By Jimmy Breslin

147 pp. Lipper/Viking. $19.95.

CAMPY

The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

By Neil Lanctot

Illustrated. 516 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

Continue reading the main story
Correction: April 10, 2011

A review on March 27 about “Branch Rickey,” by Jimmy Breslin, and “Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella,” by Neil Lanctot, misspelled the surname of an organist who played at Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field. She was Gladys Goodding, not Gooding.

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