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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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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
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OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.