By Marty Appel
Branch Rickey, one of the most influential figures in baseball history, never wrote his autobiography. We have autobiographies from Joe Charboneau, Bo Belinsky, and Eldon Auker, but nothing from the man who integrated baseball, created the farm system, and allowed 13 runners to steal while catching for the New York Highlanders in 1907 (still an American League record).
But one my favorite books is one Branch Rickey wrote in the last year of his life, called “The American Diamond.” It was published in 1965 when he was 83 years old, and he died just before Christmas that year.
While “The American Diamond” is not an autobiography, not even close, it is a loving look backwards and forwards into a game he knew intimately for more than 60 years. The 9”x12” volume, subtitled “A Documentary of the Game of Baseball,” is lavishly illustrated with black and white photography and sensational drawings by Robert Riger, a celebrated artist known for his work with ABC Sports, who died in 1995. The book was published by Simon and Schuster and features a powerful photo of Mickey Mantle swinging on the cover.
The book is an overview of the sights of the game – the clubhouse, spring training, the fans, Little League, opening day (with a wonderful picture of President Kennedy and his scorecard), the greatest players, Rickey’s all-time team, the origins of baseball, and much more.
For his all-time team, Rickey includes Shoeless Joe Jackson with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb as his outfield. “It will be said here and there that to include Jackson makes me indifferent to the integrity of the game. I wish to say a word about that anticipated criticism. Joe Jackson was blacklisted for cooperative knowledge of a fix. If there is ‘a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea,’ then there must be a ‘kindness in His justice,’ that permits redemption to Joe Jackson.”
Riger, in an introduction, says that Rickey “was determined form the beginning to write it all himself. With the exception of a few captions for certain pictures, he did exactly that. In fact, he wrote some articles many times over, perfecting them in a manner that he thought would do a person or an idea justice. He rewrote the Ty Cobb piece nine times and refined the very important ‘Future of the Game’ almost as many.”
The Future of the Game section, beginning with a photograph of the Astrodome under construction, is fascinating, 37 years later. The opening paragraphs of the section read: The First Problem: Equalizing the Teams. Writes Rickey, “Nevertheless, there must be an effort to equalize the opportunity of all clubs in the leagues in the securing of young talent….the fact remains that both the American and National Leagues are not balanced from top to bottom. The Yankee success simply has exaggerated this imbalance…. There must be legislation to establish equal opportunity for all clubs in the field of young talent “
Writing about television, Rickey makes the point that baseball does not fit the television screen, and “consequently, the televising of baseball games has become so fragmented that the entire image of the game has been changed and reduced to a ‘still picture’ or a series of still pictures, e.g. of pitcher and batter.”
Adds Rickey, “The shape of the home television screen must be changed in the years to come. The ‘sports screen’ doubtless will be produced by major television manufacturers on a 2 or 2 ½ to 1 ratio. When the width of the screen is 2 ½ times the height, then you will view the baseball diamond in its full dimension and the interaction of its players, and the viewing will be truly exciting.”
There are some arcane uses of language, even for the Great Emancipator of baseball. Captioning a photo of the veteran Bill White, speaking with a freckled white rookie in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Rickey writes “You would think the white boy is consoling or advising the colored boy. Nothing of the sort! This picture has a surprising significance – the colored boy is consoling the white boy! That’s a new day in this game of baseball!”
While Rickey’s words are so important because of his importance in baseball history, it is Riger’s photography and artwork that long made this one of my most favored volumes to return to again and again.
At the time Rickey wrote this book, he was a consultant for the Cardinals, and not especially well received there. Like many whose time had past, he was probably feeling the frustration of loss of power, and used the book as an exercise to take the high road as an elder statesman of the game. He accomplished his mission.
He is modest with his Jackie Robinson story, taking no undue credit and heaping praise on Robinson. One gets the feeling that this was an intellectual of the highest order who spent a lifetime in baseball trying to bring his values to the game. Oh, and his ex-employees could tell you, he knew how to pinch a dime.
A recent Web search found good condition copies of the book available from between $100 and $160.