Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Lee Lowenfish

Title: Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
Author: Lee Lowenfish
via Amazon
It's no stretch to say that Branch Rickey was one of the most important figures in the history of baseball, particularly among executives.  He will always be best remembered as the man who signed Jackie Robinson, thus paving the way for integration.  However, his contributions extend far beyond that one extraordinary moment.  As general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1942, he developed a farm system of minor league teams, the first of its kind in baseball.  His idea of using affiliated teams as a development system for players contracted to the major league club has since become standard practice, even spreading to hockey and, more recently, basketball.  I knew both of those things before reading Lowenfish's book.

What I didn't know was Rickey's role in advancing Major League expansion beyond the original 16 teams.  It's worth noting, however, that he didn't get quite what he wanted in that instance.  He wanted to start a new eight-team circuit, the Continental League, for which he would have been president.  While that didn't pan out, the pressure exerted by Rickey and his backers did force the existing leagues to expand.

Lowenfish's biography is certainly thorough, covering all 83 years of Rickey's life over 598 pages.  Glimpses of baseball history are always fun for me and in particular, I learned a lot about the politics around expansion that I didn't know before.  Following the sport from an executive's perspective is certainly different from the player view one usually gets in biographies.  As can be expected of a book of such length and breadth, the text does frequently get bogged down in details - there's no way I was going to remember all of the players mentioned, for instance, apart from the most colorful superstars.  Lowenfish's overuse of words like paterfamilias suggest that more heavy-handed editing might have been in order, too.  The writer does lapse into hero worship from time to time, always a danger with biographies, but he succeeds in providing a multi-dimensional view of the subject.

Overall, Branch Rickey is an engaging book that reads surprisingly quickly.  I don't know if it holds much interest for anyone not already a baseball fan but I enjoyed it.


  1. Probably one I'll skip; however, we are theoretically watching that Baseball documentary by... darn, I forget his name and don't feel like going and looking it up. That documentary guy.

    1. Undoubtedly Ken Burns.

      His episode on the 1940s should be required viewing for all Americans, whether they are baseball fans or not.

    2. He has a brother who makes documentaries, too: Ric Burns. His series on New York City is wonderful.

  2. I didn't know who Rickey was until I watched 42. Now he seems interesting.


    1. As I have written before, I believe baseball is way too quick to pat itself on the back for integration. Even after reading the book, I still feel that Rickey made the move out of desire for a competitive advantage more than any broader support for civil rights.

      That said, it took the right man to make the move in the face of strong opposition on all sides. Rickey was clearly the right man at the right time. And as far as baseball between the foul lines was concerned, the strategy worked. Brooklyn was the dominant team in the National League for a decade-plus and they probably wouldn't have been if they had not been the first to integrate.

  3. Replies
    1. It's pretty good. In terms of the quality of the writing, Lowenfish is not in Doris Kearns Goodwin's league but I learned a lot.