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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rickey & Robinson: A Review

Announcer Vin Scully is the unquestioned dean of Los Angeles Dodgers baseball because of his work with the team for well over half a century. However, there is another person, just one other, who should be regarded in that same class, and that is writer Roger Kahn.

Best known for his work as a Dodgers’ beat writer and for penning such seminal works as The Boys of Summer, Kahn may be best described as baseball’ unofficial poet laureate. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he has produced nearly two dozen books since he started his career in the 1950s, with his most recent title, Rickey & Robinson: TheTrue, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball (Rodale Books) continuing his legacy of excellence.

Rickey & Robinson details the journey taken by former Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey in integrating professional baseball with Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. The book is not a historical work per se but rather more of a collection of memories and anecdotes. Fortunately, when it comes to such things, there is probably no living person better equipped for this than Kahn, who was quite literally in the thick of things as the relationship between these two titans of baseball played out.

What makes this book stand out among others that have covered the topic in some way is the insider bird’s eye view provided by the author. The relationship between Rickey and Robinson is often portrayed in sweeping general terms. Here, a greater amount of detail truly expands the story.

Kahn isn’t shy about injecting his own thoughts and experiences. While Rickey may have been a kind and brilliant man, he was also a topflight businessman who was very keen on chasing profits. This came in various forms like having his teams play baseball on Sundays despite his personal objections to being at the ballpark on that day, to refusing to compensate Negro league and minor league teams for players that were signed off their rosters. Because of his work to integrate baseball, he is often seen through saint-tinged glasses. However, the reality was that he was much more pragmatic when it came to business decision.

It’s clear that Kahn has a tremendous amount of admiration for Robinson, but even that doesn’t prevent him from throwing the curtain back a bit more than what is seen in many other works on the subject. Most interesting are the descriptions of how the pioneering ballplayer became a master of using the media to advance his agenda, including a memorable bit towards the end of his career when he was unhappy about his salary increases.

Because of his former affiliation with the baseball beat writers, Kahn really enhances Rickey & Robinson by utilizing personal stories about, and clips of old articles of his former colleagues. The integration of baseball was something that was deeply impacted by what was written (or in many cases not written). At times it was made easier by scribes like Red Smith who wrote with open minds and hopeful pens. On the other hand, there were an abundance of writers and editors who were more interested in their own agendas or the status quo. How both sides of this coin played out are utterly intriguing, and are luckily discussed in detail.

Kahn’s relationship with those who were on the field provides the reader with yet another view. Perhaps the most memorable was the path of former outfielder Dixie Walker, a born and bred southerner, who went from trying to launch a petition to prevent Robinson or other blacks from playing major league baseball to having deep regrets later in his life for those beliefs and actions.

Much of what is in life and history is rarely just black and white, and that is very true of the story of Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. Kahn’s ability to catalogue and fill in the gaps in the “gray area” of this baseball genesis story is proof positive of why he remains one of baseball’s treasures.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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