Branch Rickey, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is probably one of the three most important men in baseball history: without Rickey, who helped Robinson break the color line, baseball might not have integrated for at least another decade. There have been several long biographies of Rickey over the years, including Lee Lowenfish's "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman" back in 2007, but sometimes a picture of the real man gets lost in a blizzard of detail.
Jimmy Breslin, a 1986 Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished commentary, restores that picture in "Branch Rickey" (Viking, $19.95), a compact, vivid volume in the Penguin Lives series. Breslin writes prose that jumps off the page and gets to the truth in a hurry.
On the Dodgers' tempestuous manager Leo Durocher: "Whenever Durocher walked off the field, he headed for trouble as if it was his home address." On the friendship between Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese and Robinson: "The true record of the years of Pee Wee Reese and Robinson is contained in a photo of the two walking off the field side by side. . . . They were looking down, ballplayers going to the dugout. Reese's white left hand was only inches away from Robinson's black right hand, but neither of them noticed."
On Rickey himself: "Branch Rickey was neither a savior nor a Samaritan. He was a baseball man."
In the film version of "Farewell, My Lovely," Robert Mitchum's detective Philip Marlowe marks time, like millions of Americans, following Joe DiMaggio's consecutive games hitting streak. Marlowe would have loved Kostya Kennedy's "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports" (Sports Illustrated Books, $26.95), which captures the atmosphere in a country perched on the edge of war in the summer of 1941.
"56" is loaded with Americana -- you can almost smell the marinara sauce simmering in Italian restaurants and hear the crackling of radios from New York to Los Angeles as Americans everywhere began and ended their day by finding out if The Great DiMaggio got a hit.
Kennedy, a former Newsday staff writer, combines the sweep of a historian, the narrative power of a novelist and the passion of a fan. "DiMaggio's streak," he concludes, "was the only event in baseball history that defied probabilistic explanation. In the end, The DiMaggio Enigma persists." Of the 17,290 players who have appeared in the major leagues, "Only one of them had ever hit in 56 straight games."
Just when you thought there were no great seasons left uncovered -- or anything new left to say about Babe Ruth -- here comes Robert Weintraub with "The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923" (Little, Brown and Company, $26.99). Weintraub, who has written for Slate.com and ESPN.com, has reconstructed the 1923 season and shown how it changed baseball that season and every season that followed it.
No previous writer has taken so much care to caulk the cracks in the years between Ruth's final year as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox in 1919 and the Yankees' first World Series victory in 1923. Weintraub has a fine feel for period detail as well as the scope of what happened in 1923 when the Yankees, by beating the great John McGraw's New York Giants, ushered baseball into a new era of long ball glory.
A perfect match of team, year and writer.
Pro football has been described as "socialist" -- the league gives each team an equal share of TV money -- while baseball is "dog eat dog" -- big dog eats little dog.
In "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First" (Ballantine/ESPN, $26), an exhilarating read for fans of both baseball and finance, author Jonah Keri tells how one underdog clawed its way to the top. Well, almost. The Tampa Bay Rays nearly got to the World Series, largely because when former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman took over in 2005, they threw out baseball "wisdom" and worked from a basis of proven financial strategies, such as "positive arbitrage": "simultaneously buying one asset . . . cheaper than the one you're selling."
Above all, "The Extra 2%" is about the role a positive attitude can play in winning. When asked how the Rays could compete with the goliath Red Sox and Yankees, general manager Andrew Friedman said it was getting close to impossible, "But it's doable."