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Books | Sports

July 2, 2007

Baseball's Conservative Revolutionary

Branch Rickey was a staunch political conservative who had already transformed baseball before his famous signing of Jackie Robinson. Rickey's biographer talks to Gelf about the great executive's legacy.

Carl Bialik

How does an author chronicle the life of Branch Rickey, the baseball innovator who had already built the St. Louis Cardinals into perennial contenders and invented the modern farm system well before his most-famous act of signing Jackie Robinson to break the sport's color barrier? By not reaching the famous first meeting of Rickey and Robinson until page 373. In Lee Lowenfish's exhaustive new Rickey biography, the former Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers executive emerges as a political and social conservative who had great capacity for innovation in baseball.

Lee Lowenfish in New Haven, Connecticut/photo by Caroline Rosenstone
"When black-power advocacy became the dominant strain in black politics, Branch Rickey was seen as a faux emancipator, a poor generalization in my opinion and why I wrote the book the way I did."

Lee Lowenfish in New Haven, Connecticut/photo by Caroline Rosenstone

Rickey feared and hated communism, opposed the New Deal, and favored baseball's restrictive reserve-clause system that enriched owners at the expense of players. Yet he believed that all players deserved a share of major-league riches, and defied the sport's establishment to make that happen.

Lowenfish, author of Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman and three other baseball books, talked to Gelf about Rickey's counterparts in today's game, whether he would have moved the Dodgers from New York, and why baseball's integrationist was sometimes accused of hypocrisy. The following interview was conducted by email, and edited for clarity. (Also, you can hear Lowenfish and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, July 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Is there a figure like Rickey in baseball today? Could there be?

Lee Lowenfish: I think among today's front-office people, he would admire what Atlanta's John Schuerholz has done—winning 13 division titles would certainly impress him, though he might wonder why they failed most of the time to go farther. I think Oakland's Billy Beane would interest him, too—anyone thinking out of the box always enchanted him. If he had run the Mets, they definitely would have highlighted youth over veterans. His grand-nephew-in-law Charles Hurth Jr. told me that his father was interested in signing Bill Freehan out of the University of Michigan but George Weiss was now in power and he went for the big names of the old Dodgers though they were the kind of over-the-hill players Rickey avoided like the plague.

GM: What would Rickey have made of Bill James and his ilk infiltrating front offices?

LL: I think Rickey would love to talk with James, Schuerholz, Beane, and anyone else who tries to solve the mystery of the wonderful, demanding game of baseball. But he wouldn't go whole-hog on any theory and would believe that personal character and obeying what he called "the inner braces" are still a very good measuring point for success in baseball.

GM: Is it hard for you to reconcile Rickey's progressive attitude toward integrating baseball with his reactionary stance on baseball labor rules?

LL: It was indeed hard to reconcile his racial progressivism with his arch-conservatism on labor issues. He was a foil in my book The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars (A Da Capo Paperback). However, he was what he was, and using Monteleone's quote at the beginning—how he was a reactionary/ visionary/ competitor/ do-gooder/ capitalist/ humanitarian all at the same time—sets the stage for his fascinating if complicated story.

GM: What's your impression of sportswriting during Rickey's heyday, compared to the writing of today? How has TV affected coverage of baseball? And how would Rickey fare in a front office today, given the change in sports media?

LL: How Rickey would fare in today's TV-drenched and internet-drenched coverage is a juicy question. He certainly would love the internet and the new techniques of evaluating players and the influx of players from all over the world. However, I don't know how he would cope with the incessant talk-show badgering. The character assassination that is common fare would definitely be a trial for him. In his heyday, sportswriting was a lot more sedate and was generally pro-management, though he was so erudite that the writers never could quite understand him and found it easy to lampoon him. Unfortunately, he was too sensitive about such criticisms, but again, that was his personality.

GM: Your fellow Varsity Letters guest John Heidenry says in an interview with Gelf that Rickey enriched himself and lived in luxury even as he was "exploiting ballplayers by trying to pay them as little as you can" and "didn't give a damn about [the 1934 Cardianls'] welfare." What do you think of that characterization? You seem to often side with Rickey in your book when recounting salary disputes.

LL: Cardinals owner Sam Breadon insisted that the Cardinals were among the highest paying teams in National League. Without access to the salary records of all the teams (as far as I know they are still unavailable to historians), it is hard to know whether this is true or not. Clearly the NL in the 1930s had some very impoverished teams, e.g. the Phillies, and the Dodgers until Larry MacPhail took them over.
Rickey felt he deserved every penny he got in salary and percentages in trades, but because he was also a genuine Christian moralist and philanthropist and voracious reader of books he was accused of hypocrisy.

"Rickey felt he deserved every penny he got, but because he was also a genuine Christian moralist and philanthropist he was accused of hypocrisy."
GM: If Rickey had still been involved with the Dodgers in 1957, might the team have stayed in New York City instead of moving to Los Angeles?

LL: He never would have moved the team, and if [co-owner] John L. Smith had lived he never would have moved the team. "If" history is fascinating and ultimately unprovable. But I think a case could be made that Rickey and Smith might have accepted a Queens home for the Dodgers if Ebbets Field had become fully run-down. [Co-owner Walter O'Malley, who moved the Dodgers] never missed an opportunity to point out [the run-down state of his stadium] to the writers in the team's last years in Brooklyn (like George Steinbrenner in the Bronx before the Yankees got good again in the mid-1990s).
It's very sad for baseball and the city of New York that Rickey and Bill Veeck were essentially not in power in the 1950s. Things might have been a lot different; on the other hand, the giant forces of suburbanization, the car culture, and television hurting the live gate might have made the outcome the same.

GM: Did Rickey get his due during all the attention paid to Jackie Robinson around the 60th anniversary of his major-league debut?

LL: He did not get the credit he deserved during the Robinson celebrations because he was easy to lampoon as a moralist who made big bucks. But he was a genuine Christian, and one of the reasons he loved Pepper Martin was for the same reason. Pepper said after his retirement that baseball and religion have similar fundamentals—sliding, running, throwing and hitting corresponds to belief in God, prayer, the Bible and love of people. This is not BS on either of their parts, but in this cynical world we live in, these genuine points get overlooked.

"It's very sad for baseball and the city of New York that Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck were essentially not in power in the 1950s."
GM: Why do you think Rickey has been somewhat forgotten by today's fans?

LL: I think his eclipse today is what I say in the prologue: The Players Association became ascendant as he left the earth, and it was easy to blame Rickey as the exemplar of the old system that kept salaries down. And when black-power advocacy became the dominant strain in black politics, Rickey was seen as a faux emancipator, a poor generalization in my opinion and why I wrote the book the way I did.

GM: I've heard you say at a reading that you over-researched the book. What do you mean by that?

LL: By over-research, I meant primarily digging into too many newspapers to get different views of a story. And it is so true that the more you know the less you know, especially since every reporter has a slightly different take on a story. The advantage of the digging I did was that in one particular instance I discovered that Rickey in July 1943 did not come to the ballpark on Sunday to witness the confrontation between reporter Tim Cohane and Leo Durocher. No writer mentioned it and I don't think he was there, although—there is what happens when you know more about your subject than he does!—later in his life he did mention that he was there!

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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