Book Review: Branch Rickey, Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
by Bob Timmermann
It would be hard to think of any baseball front office figure that changed the game more than Branch Rickey. Rickey could have just signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers and his place in history would have been secure, but he also developed the farm system and was a pioneer in the statistical analysis of baseball.
Yet, Rickey during his career was vilified by players for being too intellectual, by owners for spending too much money, and by the press for being too cheap. Lee Lowenfish in his comprehensive biography Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman tries to leave no stone unturned in the life of Rickey, penning a 600-page work with another 60 pages of end notes, that generally paints Rickey in a positive light and brings up events that I hadn’t heard of before.
The phrase “ferocious gentleman” was Rickey’s description of the ideal baseball player. It would be a player who competed hard on the field, but was an upstanding character on the field. Two of Rickey’s favorite “ferocious gentlemen” were Jackie Robinson and Pepper Martin, two players who would do whatever it would take to win out on the field, but would still go to church every Sunday.
Lowenfish’s book opens with Rickey’s final public speech, where he suffered a heart attack that led to his eventual death on December 9, 1965, one day before I was born and the same day the Reds traded Frank Robinson to Baltimore for Milt Pappas. One of Rickey’s maxims was “always trade a player a year too early instead of a year too late.” It’s not hard to believe that Rickey would have done the same if he had been in Frank Lane’sBill DeWitt's position.
Rickey’s early life is traced from his first job, working as a high school teacher in rural Ohio, even though he hadn’t graduated from high school himself. Rickey would go on to college at Ohio Wesleyan and eventually play briefly in the major leagues as a catcher from 1905-07 (along with a few games in 1914). Rickey’s career was hampered by his refusal to play on Sundays as well as an arm injury. Rickey holds the major league record for most stolen bases allowed by a catcher in a game, 13.
Eventually, Rickey found his way to the University of Michigan to study law and work as baseball coach and there he crossed paths with his first great find, George Sisler, who would eventually, after much wrangling, end up with Rickey in his major league front office job, with the St. Louis Browns.
It would be with the other St. Louis team, the Cardinals, where Rickey would have his greatest triumph. Rickey built up one of the worst teams in the National League into one of the greatest franchises ever. The key to Rickey’s success was the creation of the farm system, something he was widely ridiculed for at the time by figures such as John McGraw and reviled by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, who felt that Rickey’s farm system would kill off the minor leagues and prevent players from making the majors. Of course, neither Rickey nor Landis had any desire to get rid of the reserve system. At its apex, the Cardinals farm system was believed to control around 750 players.
After his Cardinal teams won six pennants and four World Series, Rickey and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon parted ways and Rickey moved on to Brooklyn to take over for one of his former minor league employees, Larry McPhail.
Lowenfish tries to lay down clues as to when Rickey got the idea to sign black players for the Dodgers. Lowenfish clearly believes that Rickey had two primary motivations for signing black players: 1) because it would help the Dodgers and 2) it was the right thing to do. Lowenfish does not subscribe to the theory that Rickey was just an opportunist, who wanted to parlay the novelty of signing black players into increased attendance or to drive the Negro Leagues out of business, although both things happened.
Rickey may be best remembered for his Dodger years, although he only worked in Brooklyn for eight years. Rickey was derided in the New York press, particularly by Jimmy Cannon, Powers, as “El Cheapo” for not playing players well enough, while co-owner Walter O’Malley hated Rickey for his profligate spending, especially losing several hundred thousand dollars on an ill-fated pro football team called the Brooklyn Dodgers. O’Malley forced Rickey out of Brooklyn after gaining a controlling interest of the team’s stock in 1950.
Rickey then spent the rest of his career trying to resurrect the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he couldn’t build a winner there before he was eased out and upstairs. He was working as a front office consultant when the Pirates won the World Series in 1960.
After Pittsburgh, Rickey tried to organize a third league, the Continental League, which never got a full slate of teams, but did force the majors to expand and reintroduce NL ball to New York. Rickey was appalled by O’Malley’s move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles, although he didn’t seem to be that concerned back in the 1930s when Breadon thought of moving the Cardinals out of St. Louis (to Detroit of all places), a move that spurred Rickey to get an Oklahoma oilman to buy the Cardinals.
The last hurrah for Rickey was in St. Louis in 1963 and 1964, when he was brought in by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch as a consultant to advise GM Bing Devine. The problem was that Devine hated Rickey’s intrusion into his business. Despite Devine getting fired midway through the 1964 season, the Cardinals won the World Series.
Lowenfish’s book is a surprisingly quick read for a work of its length and depth. Lowenfish does love the phrase “ferocious gentleman” and uses it throughout the book in place of Rickey’s name, which was a bit annoying. However, the book is well written and is devoid of the verbiage that Rickey was fond of using with the press.
The book’s style is quite straightforward. You will find out how each of the team’s Rickey ran did each year and details of every major trade that Rickey made. And Rickey made a lot of trades.
The signing of Jackie Robinson is treated with equal emphasis as any other one of Rickey’s accomplishments. And in many ways that is true. Baseball today would be so much different if it wasn’t integrated and if it didn’t have a farm system. The game likely would not have survived without either development.
Also, you can make the argument that if Rickey hadn’t turned the Cardinals into a contending team in the 1920s, there may be no major league baseball today in St. Louis. And yet the smallest city in the NL is the one that has the most World Series victories among NL teams.
Rickey’s influence is still felt today. Rickey was running the Dodgers when they hired a young broadcaster named Vin Scully. Rickey was consulting with the Cardinals when they were breaking in a young catcher named Tim McCarver, who still doesn’t care for Rickey, who was quite critical of McCarver in spring training. The Dodgers spring training facility in Vero Beach (which they will be leaving after 2008) was a Rickey idea.
While he may just be known more as the old white guy with the bushy eyebrows sitting next to Jackie Robinson in photos, Rickey’s career was far more than that. Lowenfish’s book will tell you all about it if you aren’t put off by the length.