So many unforgettably drawn characters populate Jimmy Breslin's wonderful new Branch Rickey biography that they seemingly threaten to burst the book's slim binding. There is the scout who could "go out for coffee and come back with a second baseman," the alcoholic sportswriter whose "breath requires corking," the manager with "a temper that made the slightest confrontation suggest Verdun."
Most of all, though, there is Rickey, who rose from a poor Ohio town to become perhaps baseball's greatest innovator and humanist. In his 40 years as a manager—with four clubs, most notably the Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers—Rickey invented the modern farm system, discovered such Hall of Famers as George Sisler and Duke Snider, and even gave the Cardinals their first birds-on-the-bat logo. Of course, the greatest achievement of this principled but savvy man was his determination to find the right player, the right person, to integrate major league baseball, which Breslin describes as then being a "sport for hillbillies with great eyesight." "I don't know who he is or where he is," Breslin finds Rickey saying in 1945, "but he is coming." That person came two years later, and he was Jackie Robinson.
The Rickey-Robinson story has been told before, but never as colorfully or entertainingly as it is by Breslin. At age 80 the Pulitzer Prize winner still produces the punchy prose, full of flawed heroes and virtueless villains, that earned him his reputation as a literary lion. "The Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey," he writes of one Robinson obstacle, would spend "years keeping blacks off his teams and he got what he deserved, which was nothing." In another passage Breslin re-creates Rickey's convincing Dodgers owner George V. McLaughlin—known as George the Fifth, for his love of drink—that his club should field the league's first black player, including McLaughlin's promise: "If this doesn't work for money, you're sunk."
Breslin's Branch Rickey is all good, all 146 pages of it. You might read a longer baseball book this year, but you won't read a better one.
That Tome Of Year
A look at three more significant baseball books out this spring
Roy Campanella was the second black Dodger, but as Lanctot deftly illustrates, the HOF catcher faced a different set of challenges after his Chevy struck a telephone pole in 1958, rendering him a quadriplegic.
The Extra 2%
Keri writes on the stock market and for Baseball Prospectus, making him the ideal author for the inside story of how three Wall Streeters--turned--MLB execs exploited market inefficiencies to make the moribund Rays perennial contenders.
George Vecsey(May 10)
Rickey made Stan the Man the Cardinals' leftfielder in '42, and Musial became baseball's most underappreciated legend. It is difficult to write compellingly about a simple and good man, but Vescey, the New York Times columnist, succeeds.
And Now, the Bracket of Brackets
Is your NCAA bracket busted? Join the crowd. March Madness, however, is clearly contagious, and bracket knockoffs abound—albeit some less sporty than others. SI rounded up the best of the rest, along with sample first-round matchups. Which is champion? On this one, you decide.
1 THE SCORE'S TOURNAMENT OF BAD
Sex and the City 2 vs. Brian Wilson's beard
16 THE GOOD MEN PROJECT'S GOOD MEN SWEET 16
Pope Benedict XVI vs. Ban Ki-moon
8 WILD TURKEY AMERICAN HONEY'S MAD MARCHNESS (BEST SONG EVER)
Hey Jude vs. Gimme Shelter
9 ESPN RADIO THE HERD WITH COLIN COWHERD'S BEST ROCK BAND
Rush vs. Styx
4 THEVICTORYFORMATION.COM'S CHOCOLATOLOGY
Krackel vs. Mars bar
13 JEZEBEL.COM'S CATS VS. DOGS
Pug vs. Terrier; Tabby vs. Sphynx
5 io9.COM'S MARCH MOVIE MADNESS
Star Wars vs. Stargate
12 TREACHERYISAFOOT.COM'S MEAT MADNESS
Fuddruckers vs. McDonald's
2 ESQUIRE'S SEXIEST WOMAN ALIVE
Brooklyn Decker vs. Kate Middleton
15 THUNDERTREATS.COM'S COUGAR MADNESS
Faith Hill vs. Debbie Gibson
7 THE NEW YORKER'S BRACKETS BRACKET
Plain old lines vs. Two-tone boxes
10 EA SPORTS'S MADDEN 12 COVER VOTE
Matt Ryan vs. Jordan Gross
3 WEATHER.COM'S TOUGHEST WEATHER CITY
Duluth vs. Des Moines
14 EVERYDAYSHOULDBESATURDAY.COM'S CONDIMENT BRACKET
Truffle oil vs. Nutella
6 NAME OF THE YEAR TOURNAMENT
Past Winners: Nohjay Nimpson, Assumption Bulltron
11 THE MORNING NEWS'S TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS
Savages vs. The Finkler Question
2011 BRACKET CHAMPION
RAPHAEL MAZZUCCO (DECKER)
PETER READ MILLER (RYAN)
SIMON & SCHUSTER (SAVAGES)
DARIO PIGNATELLI/REUTERS (POPE)