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When I started working on my biography of Branch Rickey in the late 1990s, some people thought I was writing about Rickey Henderson, the all-time base stealing champion and one of the most effective leadoff hitters in baseball history. On the last Sunday of next month Henderson gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He is one of the rare players to be voted into the shrine by the sportswriters the first year he is eligible. (With the exception of Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente who were elected shortly after their untimely deaths, the rules require a five-year waiting period after one’s retirement.)

Branch Rickey did not live to see his induction into Cooperstown in July 1967. He died in December 1965 a few weeks after collapsing while giving a speech on “Courage – Physical and Spiritual” at a sports banquet on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Henderson and Rickey never met, coming from different generations and having different outlooks on the world yet each had such a strong personality that quirks in their behavior were labeled as “Rickey Being Rickey.”

I only talked to Rickey Henderson once, near the end of his brief controversial career with the Mets that was punctuated by his occasional lackadaisical base-running and the highly publicized incident of his playing cards with Bobby Bonilla in the clubhouse during a playoff game after both had been removed from the action. What I most remember about our conversation is that Henderson told me that he developed his speed chasing chickens on the farm in Arkansas where he had been raised by his grandmother.

I never met Branch Rickey but having read everything I could get my hands on and talking to many of his family and friends I feel like I know him. He would have enjoyed Henderson’s chasing chickens story because Pepper Martin, Rickey’s all-time favorite St. Louis Cardinal Gashouse Gang player, liked to say that he developed his quickness chasing rabbits in the Oklahoma countryside.

Did Branch Rickey ever like to talk and to tell stories! He was like a torrent of nature but in the memorable words of one of his Brooklyn aides Frank Graham Jr., “Who asks for syntax from the incantatory surge of the sea?” He was, of course, sly in his use of verbiage, utilizing his great vocabulary and argumentative skills to keep in line the salary demands of his players who had few choices except to hold out during the heyday of the reserve system. Yet I feel strongly that on balance “Rickey Being Rickey” was to the benefit of the game and its longevity.

I’m reading from “Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman” tonight at 6:30 at the Telephone Bar and Grill on Second Avenue and 9th Street in the East Village. It is part of the literary series, Pros on Prose, hosted by Elinor Nauen, the gifted poet and author of the baseball anthology “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Elinor takes over the reader’s chair at 7:30. We met in the early 1980s via a mutual friendship with the late poet and humongous Mets fan Joel Oppenheimer (who for years wrote e.e.cummings-like columns for New York’s Village Voice weekly newspaper.

Today will be my last post of the week. Be back on Monday with tales of my reading adventure and other encounters on the baseball beat, historical and contemporary. Enjoy the unfolding season where most of the 30 major league teams still have hope for meaningful Septembers. It may be mediocrity not parity but let’s hold off that debate for another time. Ciao for now!

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