8:00am

Sat March 19, 2011
Sports

Branch Rickey: Breaking Baseball's Color Barrier

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

To baseball now. Jimmy Breslin, the great New York columnist, has written a new Penguin Lives biography of Branch Rickey, the great general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the man who invented the minor league system, coined bromides like: Luck is the residue of design, and made American - not just sports history - by signing Jackie Robinson and integrating the game of baseball.

Mr. Breslin, who won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize and has written many, many best-selling books, joins us from where else, New York, to talk about Branch Rickey.

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

Mr. JIMMY BRESLIN (Author, "Branch Rickey"): Good. Im here.

SIMON: Yeah, you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. BRESLIN: Yeah

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

Mr. BRESLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: 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?

Mr. 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.

SIMON: Yeah. Branch Rickey was certainly a religious man.

Mr. BRESLIN: Mm-hmm.

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

Mr. 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?

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

Mr. BRESLIN: Oh, yeah. George McLaughlin was a white man. He had been fire commissioner, police commissioner and now he was a banker and his bank was owed $800,000 by the Brooklyn Dodgers and he wanted it. So now Rickey wanted to talk to him and they spoke together and Rickey said that he had a way to make money in baseball and that was to put a black onto the field. It would draw large crowds of blacks - would put up money and we have a black on our team.

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 dont put principle into this. We're looking for cake, admissions. But see, but let me get to Rickey now.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. 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.

SIMON: 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.

Mr. 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.

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

Mr. 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.

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

Mr. 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.

SIMON: Yeah. And well note the Dodgers, of course, won the pennant in 47, 49, 50.

Mr. BRESLIN: Yeah. Yeah.

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

Mr. BRESLIN: Sure.

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

Mr. 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.

SIMON: You mean literally kept it in his pocket?

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

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

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

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: No, sir.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Chicago.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right. I think I...

Mr. BRESLIN: We're in Brooklyn on Montague Street.

SIMON: 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?

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

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. 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.

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

Mr. BRESLIN: Thank you.

SIMON: Jimmy Breslin, his new book part of the Distinguished Penguin Lives series is Branch Rickey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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