Branch Rickey is one of the immortals of baseball, one of the most influential people the game has ever known. On this episode of Cover the Bases, we are pleased to present historian and biographer, Lee Lowenfish, author of Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman. The book is the winner of a coveted Seymour Medal award from SABR.
Lee Lowenfish is a native of New York City who has a masters and doctoral degrees in American History from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He grew up a Giants fans and only rooted for the Dodgers when they played the Yankees in the World Series. However, he was compelled to write a definitive biography of the man most identified with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with an eye towards his historical pursuits in the area of race relations in the U.S.
Lee wrote a book about labor relations in Major League Baseball called The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars (third edition due in April 2010) in which Branch Rickey was a foil, a staunch supporter of the reserve clause that tied players to ballclubs indefinitely. Throughout all of Lee’s efforts, he felt a calling to write a book that includes a view of Rickey’s upbringing as a poor farm boy, forming his moral and charitable character that ultimately integrates baseball.
Rickey was not only instrumental in advancing race relations by integrating the Major Leagues with racial minorities, but also helped to support the war effort and women’s rights by working along side P.K. Wrigley in the formation of The Girl’s All American Professional Baseball League, previously covered in a previous episode of Cover the Bases with baseball book author Sue Macy.
Lee recounts that Rickey even made attempts to recruit and evaluate Japanese citizens who were detained in internment camps during the Second World War as well. It should be pointed out that Rickey did not advance these principals as just for the sake of the cause, but rather he was focused entirely on finding the “best man for the job”.
Another fine observation is the fact that Rickey would love the current World Baseball Classic and the exposure it brings to the game on a global level. He felt that baseball was a great way of life for youths around the world and that they would benefit from playing the game.
If a player was going to get a chance with a Branch Rickey team, whether it was his early days with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers or his later years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, that player must have speed, a strong arm and a certain quality of aggressiveness and adventure, especially on the basepaths.
Lee believes that Rickey would have had differences of opinions with current day executives such as Billy Beane or Bill James, who believe on base percentage is a tool. Rickey would not be happy with a player who has a knack for getting on base but could not run well.
Note .. Lee mentions that his next book is going to be about the services that scouts provide and the value they bring. We can’t wait for that insight into an under appreciated element of the game.
We want to call attention to the Brooklyn Cyclones, who Lee mentions in recounting a tale that includes Pee Wee Reese’s and Jackie Robinson’s widows attending a dedication ceremony unveiling their statue at the stadium. There is something very right about having baseball in Brooklyn.
The sub title of the book; Baseballs Ferocious Gentleman is derived from a term that Branch Rickey used to describe the players that he had. On the field they could be ferocious in the way that they played, with a strong desire for winning. Off the field they were gentleman. Jackie Robinson is famously told that he cannot fight back no matter how terrible the slights might be, and he maintained his gentlemanly stature throughout the course of his entire career.
To finish off the podcast, Lee heads off to a luncheon that he has been doing for 20 years. Originally started by the late Larry Ritter, who wrote The Glory of Their Times. Also in attendance will be Ray Robinson who wrote Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time and Matty: An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants among many others. The luncheon will feature Stan Isaacs who will bring in his Hall of Fame ballot for the group to discuss and debate the qualifications of those who are on the ballot.
To follow Lee you can find him on Twitter or at his web site LeeLowenfish.com .. We express our sincere gratitude to Lee for sharing his story with us and for taking the time to appear on the Cover the Bases podcast.
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