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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.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.