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The Good Book and a Bad Baseball Team

Antiquarian book restorer Joanne Murphy, of the Book Den and the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library, holds a rare Bible autographed by the members of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team at the Book Den in Sacramento, California, January 24, 2013. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Antiquarian book restorer Joanne Murphy, of the Book Den and the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library, holds a rare Bible autographed by the members of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team at the Book Den in Sacramento, California, January 24, 2013. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Sacramento, Calif. — Joanne Murphy knew something was unusual when she opened up an old Bible last month. The holy book turned up among the tens of thousands of materials donated to the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library each year.

Inside the Bible, 31 different signatures were emblazoned on the first page along with “Pirates 1953” written across the top in blue ink.

Murphy, an antiquarian book repairer, didn’t know what all this meant until she did some research online.

“The Bible had been sitting in my shop for months waiting to get repaired,” said Murphy, 65. “No one wanted it.”

As it turns out, she had a piece of baseball history.

The Catholic Bible was signed by 30 players and manager Fred Haney of the 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates and given to their general manager Branch Rickey, best known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.

But the question remains: How did Rickey’s Bible end up in a donation bin for a Sacramento library group?

The person most likely to know, Rickey’s grandson Branch Barrett Rickey, said it’s a mystery.

“It’s the first I’ve heard of the Bible,” Branch B. Rickey said by phone from Texas.

Branch Rickey, who was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, died in 1965. About a dozen of the 30 Pirates players, including Hall of Fame member Ralph Kiner and broadcaster Joe Garagiola, are still living. But of the five reached by The Sacramento Bee, none recalled signing the Bible.

“I don’t remember signing it, but maybe I did,” said Eddy Fitz Gerald, a former catcher who lives in Folsom, Calif.

But Fitz Gerald, 88, did remember the team’s record. “It wasn’t a very good team,” he said.

The Pirates finished in last place in the eight-team National League that year with a 50-104 record.

Branch B. Rickey, president of the Pacific Coast League, said a number of his relatives live in California, including a sister in Davis and a cousin in Sacramento. But both said they didn’t know about the Bible.

“Much of the stuff from my grandfather was parceled out among five daughters and a daughter-in-law,” Branch B. Rickey said. “The division of who got what was very informal.”

Branch B. Rickey said it was possible his grandfather had “given the Bible as a gift to a dear friend,” but acknowledged “there’s any number of speculations.”

Christopher Jakle, a grandson of Rickey who lives in Sacramento, said he, too, doesn’t know how the Bible ended up here, but noted that a number of the family’s belongings had previously sold on eBay.

Jakle believes the buyer probably died and whoever inherited the Bible didn’t know about its significance.

“I would be interested in buying it back,” Jakle said last week, while viewing the Bible.

Branch Rickey — better known for his front-office roles with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers — did have a number of connections to Sacramento early in his career, according to local baseball historian Alan O’Connor. Rickey purchased the Sacramento Solons — the precursor to the River Cats — in 1935.

“He was on Riverside and Broadway all the time, watching players and talking to people,” O’Connor said.

But arguably the most polarizing part of his career was when Rickey signed Robinson in 1945. Two years later, Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, the first step in ending racial segregation in Major League Baseball. “All his peers opposed him, every one of them,” Branch B. Rickey said. “But he had a conviction to do this.”

Still, Branch B. Rickey said his grandfather never took credit for signing Robinson.

“Robinson didn’t just break the barrier — he shattered it. He went from excluded to excellent,” Branch B. Rickey said.

A movie based on Robinson’s life, 42, is scheduled to be released in April, with Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman portraying Robinson.

Frank Thomas, 83, also doesn’t remember signing the Bible, but said he “never got along with Branch.”

Thomas recalled how Rickey wouldn’t give him a $1,000 raise in 1952.

“I was just a young kid trying to make a living for my family,” he said. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Baseball collectors have told Murphy the restored Bible could fetch as much as $800. The Bible will be on public display next month in honor of Black History Month at the central branch of the Sacramento Public Library.

Still, the jury is out on how the Bible made its way to town.

“It’s one of those anomalies,” O’Connor said.