On the morning before John F. Kennedy's funeral, Jimmy Breslin went up to Arlington National Cemetary and watched Clifton Pollard dig the president's grave.
That column --- it's a classic.
And it's one of many. New York corruption schemes. The 'Son of Sam" killer. Riots. Rudy Giuliani.
Of course he won a Pulitzer.
Jimmy Breslin does not have a low opinion of himself. "Media," he likes to say, "is the plural of mediocrity."
He has a point. Media kicks people only when they're on the way down. Jimmy Breslin likes to kick them when they're riding high. Cardinal Egan couldn't bring himself to speak about pedophiles in the Church. "The man betrayed Catholics, and the Irish," Breslin wrote, "and he puts on his red hat." He savaged a then-popular governor: "'Society' Carey, his mind like sky...." The day after 9/11, when everyone else was chest-thumping, he told me, "Security will make you weep."
And now, in just 143 word-perfect pages, he has written a biography of Branch Rickey.
He didn't want to --- he was in his late 70s when Viking asked him to contribute to its series of brief biographies. But let him tell it:
When they ask me to write a book about a Great American, right away I say yes. When I say yes I always mean no. They ask me to choose a subject, and I say Branch Rickey. He placed the first black baseball player into the major leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson. He helped clear the sidewalks for Barack Obama to come into the White House. As it only happened once in the whole history of the country, I would say that is pretty good. Then some editors told me they never heard of Rickey. Which I took as an insult, a disdain for what I know, as if it is not important enough for them to bother with. So now I had to write the book.
And what a book! It is about baseball --- but, really, it's about so much more. And it's the "much more" that makes this a sports book that should reach the widest possible audience. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Start with Branch Rickey. Baseball, writes Breslin, was "for hillbillies with great eyesight." Rickey came from Ohio farmland and he played a bit of ball, but he was smart and hard-working, and he got himself an education. Armed with a law degree, he moved to Boise, Idaho, had one client, and decided it would be smarter to coach college baseball.
Branch Rickey was complicated --- and not. "He was neither a savior nor a Samaritan," Breslin writes. "He was a baseball man, and nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty." When he ran the St. Louis Cardinals, he started buying more teams. Soon he had invented the minor league farm system. And he invented a business --- when he sold a player, he took ten percent commission.
In l943, in Brooklyn, he had a plan to make a great deal more money: "There were a million blacks who played baseball. He knew right there ... that it was only sensible to look for players who could make the Dodgers. And fill seats at Ebbets Field and all over the league."
Consider the year. Rickey started implementing his plan "four years before the armed forces were desegregated by Harry Truman, years before Brown vs. Board, decades before the Civil Rights Act and the great American law, Lyndon Baines Johnson's Voting Right Act of 1965 (and that is exactly how it should be printed in the books.). On this day, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a junior in an Atlanta high school."
No other owner supported Rickey. (Breslin: "The Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey, would spend the next twenty years keeping blacks off his teams and he got what he deserved, which was nothing.") No matter. He started looking for a player who was more than a great African-American athlete --- he had to be willing to ignore racism on and off the field.
The account of Rickey's conversations with Robinson is thrilling. So are the games. Media support? Non-existent: "No white editor in the North became a civil rights legend because no white in the North wanted anything to do with it."
Breslin digresses, and these stories are priceless. How he needed cigarettes to write, and how he stopped smoking. New York politics: "The reason why people are in the best hands when they give their problems to a politician is that the man does favors for a living." Why tobacco companies sponsored baseball.
And the sentences! "Until this morning, there has been no white person willing to take on the issue. That is fine with Rickey. He feels that he is up at bat with two outs and a 3-2 pitch coming. He is the last man up, sure he will get a hit." Yes, you could teach a whole term in a writing class off just this short book.
On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto a major league field --- and into history. And not just baseball history. When you read Breslin's final chapter.... well, you'll see.
Halfway through the book, Breslin tells a story about a minor league manager who is about to have Robinson on his team. He has just one question for Branch Rickey: "Do you really believe that he...that a colored man --- he didn't really call him that --- can be a human being?"
That manager came around. Not everyone has. A few days ago, Marilyn Davenport, an elected committee member of the Republican Party in Orange County, California,. sent friends an e-mail showing a family portrait --- that is, a family of chimpanzees, two parents , one child. Barack Obama's face was superimposed on the child. Under the photo was this caption: "Now you know why no birth certificate."
Ms. Davenport has said she did nothing wrong, that this is just "liberal media" misinterpreting some lighthearted fun.
Jimmy Breslin would say --- I'm taking his probable language back into family-friendly territory --- that this is why he wrote the book.
For my part, I'd say this is why everyone who gives a damn about this country should read Breslin's little book. And why, as a gift to those who still have their doubts about African Americans, "Branch Rickey" has the power of a bomb.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler