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Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports by Irwin Silber (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 2003)
Ive been told that Im the only sportswriter still perpendicular who was at that fightsince the fight in question is the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight championship bout in Yankee Stadium, Lester Rodney probably has that right. Rodney, who then constituted the Daily Workers one-person sports department, has outlasted not just his peers on the sports beat, but also the long silence that enveloped the history of his and his papers campaign to integrate Major League Baseball.
In 1958, after concluding that both institutions were irreformable, Rodney and three other Daily Worker editors publicly resigned from the newspaper and the Communist Party that published it. From there Rodneys career as a communist sportswriter went from present improbable to past unmentionable and essentially disappeared from the printed record until the publication of Jules Tygiels Baseballs Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy 25 years later. It has taken an additional 20 years for the whole story to finally appear in print in Irwin Silbers Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports.
When Rodney saw his first copy of the Daily Worker in 1936 he was a 24-year-old New York University night student from a conservative Republican family, but moving leftward. Having always played and followed sports, he naturally turned to look for the papers sports page, but found that it ran an odd little sports section only once a week.
So when Rodney took the trouble to mail his opinions on the matter to the Workers editor, he wasto his great surpriseinvited to discuss his letter, and soon afterwards asked if hed like to edit the sports section, which meant writing the entire section. With baseball then the countrys number one sport, Rod- ney gave it the most attention and for the next eleven years, he brashly posed the questions of the whys and wherefores of blacks exclusion from the national pastime.
On the 50th anniversary of Robinsons 1947 Brooklyn Dodger debut, the New York Times acknowledged, Black weeklies...as well as the Daily Worker...had pushed hard for baseballs intransigent hierarchy to sign worthy Negro Leaguers since the 1930s, but at the time the Times, along with the rest of the press, said just about nothing on the topic.
He asked white players if they would play with blacks. Usually they said they would and Rodney quoted them. Many had already faced blacks in some of the hundreds of games played between informal black and white all-star teams, but the silence about these barnstorming games was so much the norm that when Joe DiMaggio stunned a group of sportswriters by telling them that Negro League great Satchell Paige was the best pitcher he had ever faced, Rodney remembers, We had a huge headline the next day. The other papers never mentioned it, and the Sporting News, then known as the bible of baseball, could claim, There is not a single Negro player with major league possibilities. The Worker also played up Paiges challenge to the World Series winner to take on a black all-star team and eventually covered the Young Communist Leagues campaign to gather nearly two million signatures in support of blacks right to play in the Majors.
Author Irwin Silber devotes half the book to situating Rodneys efforts within the larger scene and lets his subject talk for the rest. The result is a pleasure to read. Rodney is particularly interesting on some of the early black players. He finds Dodger president Branch Rickeys choice of Jackie Robinson as the pioneer somewhat surprising in that Robinson was a known militant, having been court-martialed in the army for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Texas. But he was probably the only college man among the possible candidates, presumably leading Rickey to consider him the best equipped for the challenge. Rodney thinks that Roy Campan- ella, who followed Robinson to the Dodgers, often did not get his due because of his softer-spoken nature, but reminds us that the Hall of Fame catcher was a member of the executive board of the New York NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and maintained a broader view of the importance of baseballs integration than most, insisting that it had paved the way for the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation. Willie Mays, on the other hand, Rodney thought, was just a ballplayer. Campy (Campanella) never thought too much of him because Willie would never say anything with content.
Another thing the nonagenarian Rodney may have outlived in the two-thirds of a century since he started the job is the widespread appreciation of just how strange a thing it was to be the Communist Partys sportswriter. Dick Young of the Daily News told him, I hate the guts of the Commies and what they stand for but if they were all like you... and later gave him an item that he knew his own paper would not let him print, in the hope that Rodney would run it in the Worker. But perhaps Dodger manager Leo Durocher, known for his deft use of the profane, best captured the wonder of Rodneys career with his quip, For a fucking Communist, you sure know your baseball.
Tom Gallagher is an activist and freelance writer based in California.
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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