Branch Rickey is a fascinating character, a renaissance man in the rough-and-tumble days of baseball, someone who brought lasting change to the game, both big and small. Revolutionary isn’t too strong a word.
So, even after finishing Lee Lowenfish’s 600-page biography of the longtime executive, I needed more. So I picked up one of the books listed in the bibliography: “Branch Rickey’s Little Blue Book.” Basically, a guy named John Monteleone went to the Library of Congress and went through 131 containers of Rickey’s writings, letters and speeches, then complied the notable ones into a book.
The book isn’t bad, and there are a few worthwhile nuggets. (I learned Rickey invented the batting tee, for example.) The highlight, however, is the scouting reports, and the crown jewel is a report on an outfielder named Joe Taylor:
A tall, rough, sea-going Negro who allegedly plays a great game when he’s sober. He has a reputation for being a complete rounder — a fence screeching tomcat with not enough females in sight. ‘Tis said he even plays a good game with a snoot full. This fellow can run and he can throw and he can hit the ball “a fur piece.” I don’t know how old he is. So far as I can find out, no one does. My guess is somewhere between 20 and 40. Age doesn’t matter because he is fast, agile, and obviously full of confidence. He is presently hitting .325 and 24 doubles and 16 home runs.
Taylor bears such a reputation that I guess I couldn’t have the remotest interest in him, but he impressed me very much as a player.
Now, after discovering that gem, I could hardly stop there. After some research, I found that Rob Neyer wrote about Taylor in his “Big Book of Baseball Legends.” In it, he relays a story from yet another book, a story told by a teammate named Dick Fitzgerald, that seems to validate Rickey’s scouting report:
Joe Taylor was a great Triple-A ballplayer. He could do it all. He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, but he really should have had a career in the majors.
Anyway, one day in 1959 when Joe and I were on the Vancouver club in the PCL, Joe came to the ballpark drunk. We tried to sober him up by getting him a lot of coffee and juice, but that didn’t help a whole lot, so when the game started Joe was not in the lineup.
When the ninth inning rolled around, we were trailing 2 to 1, but we had the tying and winning runs on base with two outs. Joe was feeling better at that point, and he started pestering our manager, Charlie Metro, to let him pinch hit. “Come on, Charlie. Put me in, and I’ll break this thing wide open.”
Metro pinch hit him, and Joe struck out on three pitches. Three fastballs right down the middle, and Joe didn’t even take the batt of his shoulder.
Of course, Metro was pissed. And as he started walking down the concrete corridor to our locker room, Joe came up behind him and said, “Charlie, you dumb ass … You knew I was drunk. Why’d you put me in?”
An all-time great quote, yet there’s reason to doubt the story. Neyer dug deeper and looked at box scores for all 151 of the Vancouver Mounties’ games in 1959. Taylor played in 110 of them — he spent a good portion of the summer in the majors with the Orioles — but, according to the files, he didn’t pinch hit in a single PCL game that year.
But there’s no reason to doubt Taylor’s affinity for alcohol. Going through old microfilm of The Sporting News, Bob Lemke found that Taylor served a two-game suspension the next season, in 1960, for playing while intoxicated (PWI?) while with the Seattle Rainiers in the PCL.
Rainiers manager Dick Sisler removed Taylor after the first game of a doubleheader after he stumbled over first base and admitted to teammates that he was drunk. Just 15 days prior, he had be convicted of a DUI and lost his driver’s license as a result.
Taylor’s sober days were productives ones, though. He led the Rainiers that season with a career-high 30 home runs.