Book Review: Rickey and Robinson

Guys, I promise to get back to writing about the Blue Jays farm system tomorrow with a look at a possible pitching rotation for New Hampshire, but I thought today I would put together a review of one of the great Roger Kahn’s works, a summary of the integration of baseball by someone who had a front row seat to it.

A true confession before we start: with this book (the last of his storied career, published in 2014), Kahn has cemented his status as my favourite baseball writer. Kahn is best known for his epic The Boys of Summer, his recollection of life as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, but I always felt his best work was Good Enough to Dream, an account of the 1980s summer Kahn put his money where his mouth was, and bought an independent minor league team.

Kahn started at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy in 1948; four years later, he was a beat reporter covering the Dodgers. During his time covering the ballclub, he became quite close with Robinson, who enlisted Kahn’s help editing what proved to be a short-lived magazine called Our Sports. With the relationship Kahn developed with Robinson, he offers considerable “behind the scenes” anecdotes about baseball’s trailblazer, including his dealings with a sometimes openly racist New York media.

Kahn also provided considerable insight into Rickey, and like many who have studied the Mahatma’s career, feels somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, Rickey integrated the game; on the other, he was something of a cutthroat, a man who gained and wielded tremendous power – and wealth (Rickey received a cut of all sales of players to other clubs, hence at least part of his belief in a large farm system):

Rickey is hailed, and rightly so, for signing Jackie Robinson. But a hard-eyed look shows us also a Rickey who, more than anyone else, perpetuated baseball feudalism. Of course, contradictions in great leaders are not unusual, but seldom are they so dramatic. Branch Rickey, the Great Emancipator, was also a practising feudal lord.

While Kahn acknowledges that integrating the game was a true redeeming quality, he also documents Rickey’s missteps along the road to bringing a black player to the majors. There was the uncomfortable night the season prior to Robinson’s debut in 1947 when Rickey met with black community leaders in a Brooklyn YMCA. Rickey suggested to those leaders that white fans might be driven away by the “antics” of black fans, and he pleaded with them to take responsibility for controlling their fellow fans of colour. Kahn also chides Rickey for failing to bring up Robinson for the tie-breaking playoff the Dodgers played against St Louis in 1946. Robinson had already won a batting title, been named the International League’s MVP, and led his Montreal Royals to a Junior World Series title. Kahn felt the addition of Robinson to the Dodger lineup would give the team a much-needed boost in their best-of-three playoff with the Cards. Rickey felt the time wasn’t right to bring up Robinson, and the Dodgers lost the series.

Kahn saves much of his wrath, however, for Walter O’Malley, the lawyer who leveraged his family and political connections into an ownership stake in the Dodgers in the early 40s. O’Malley continued to grow and consolidate his power over the club to the point where he forced Rickey out in 1951 (Dodgers employees were fined for even mentioning Rickey’s name in the aftermath of his firing), and despite league-leading attendance, allowed Ebbets Field to deteriorate to the point that attendance started to decline after Brooklyn’s 1955 World Series victory. When O’Malley failed to gain political backing to build a new ballpark, he fled for the west coast in 1958, a moment Kahn and many other Dodgers fans of his era recall with considerable bitterness.

Kahn brilliantly documents a historic moment in baseball. He also paints thorough portraits of two of the game’s most important characters. As a final work (Kahn passed away in 2019), Rickey and Robinson caps a legendary career itself.

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