A for Athlete

Dave Zirin wrote: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-zirin/more-than-sportswriter_b_401408.html

More than a Sportswriter: Lester“"Red"”Rodney: 1911-2009[]

By Dave Zirin

It didn't make SportsCenter, but one of history's most influential sportswriters died this week at the age of 98. His name was Lester Rodney. Lester was one of the first people to write about a young Negro League prospect named Jackie Robinson. He was the last living journalist to cover the famous 1938 fight at Yankee Stadium between “The Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, and Hitler favorite, Max Schmeling. He crusaded against baseball's color line when almost every other journalist pretended it didn't exist. He edited a political sports page that engaged his audience in how to fight for a more just sports world. His writing, which could describe the beauty of a well-turned double play in one sentence and blast injustice in the next, is still bracing and ahead of its time. He should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead he was largely erased from the books.

If you have never heard of Lester Rodney, there is a very simple reason why: the newspaper he worked at from 1936-1958 was the Daily Worker, the party press of the U.S. Communist Party. Lester used his paper to launch the first campaign to end the color line in Major League Baseball. I spoke to Lester about this in 2004 and he said to me, “It's amazing. You go back and you read the great newspapers in the thirties, you'll find no editorials saying, ‘What's going on here? This is America, land of the free and people with the wrong pigmentation of skin can't play baseball?’ Nothing like that. No challenges to the league, to the commissioner, no talking about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who were obviously of superstar caliber. So it was this tremendous vacuum waiting.”

The campaign was integrated into the Party's anti-racist work of the 1930s: “I spoke to the leaders of the YCL [the Young Communist League]. We talked about circulating the paper [at ballparks]. It just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, ‘Why don't we go to the ballparks - to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds - with petitions?’ We wound up with at least a million and a half signatures that we delivered straight to the desk of [baseball commissioner] Judge Landis

As Lester fought to end the Color Ban, he also never stopped highlighting and covering the Negro League teams, giving them press at a time when they invisible men outside of the African American press. But it was Jackie Robinson who captured Lester's imagination. Armed with a press pass to the Ebbets Field locker room, he saw up close the way Robinson was told to “just shut up and play” despite the constant harassment during his inaugural 1947 campaign. “Jackie was suppressing his very being, his personality,” said Lester. “He was a fiercely intelligent man. He knew his role and he accepted it. And the black players who followed him knew what he meant too.”

Lester saw the way their play – and their courage – helped inspire the struggle for Civil Rights, especially in the South. Lester told me about a dramatic exhibition game in Atlanta where all the dynamics of the Black Freedom Struggle were on display. “This exhibition game wound up with the Black fans being allowed in because they had overflowed the segregated stands, they had poured in from outlying districts to see the first integrated game in Georgia history. The Klan had said, ‘This must not happen.’ That night there was this tremendous sight of Robinson, [Dodgers African American players] Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella coming out and the black fans behind the ropes and in the stands standing and roaring their greeting. A large sector of whites were just sitting and booing. Then other white people, hesitantly at first, stood up and consciously differentiated themselves from the booers and clapped. This was an amazing spectacle. This was the Deep South many years before the words civil rights were widely known. So it had its impact.…

Roy Campanella, once said to me something like, ‘Without the Brooklyn Dodgers you don't have Brown v. Board of Education.’ I laughed, I thought he was joking but he was stubborn. He said, ‘All I know is we were the first ones on the trains, we were the first ones down South not to go around the back of the restaurant, first ones in the hotels.’ He said, ‘We were like the teachers of the whole integration thing.

Lester would still become emotional when he recalls Jackie Robinson and his impact. “There are very few people of whom you can say with certainty that they made this a somewhat better country. Without doubt you can say that about Jackie Robinson. His legacy was not, ‘Hooray, we did it,’ but ‘Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there.’ He was a continuing militant, and that's why the Dodgers never considered this brilliant baseball man as a manager or coach. It's because he was outspoken and unafraid. That's the kind of person he was. In fact, the first time he was asked to play at an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium, he said, ‘"I must sorrowfully refuse until I see more progress being made off the playing field on the coaching lines and in the managerial departments."’ He made people uncomfortable. In fact it was that very quality which made him something special. He always made you feel that ‘Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there." We can absolutely say the same about Lester Rodney, albeit with a twist. Yes, Lester made you feel like there was unfinished work out there. But he also made you feel like the great fun in life was in trying to get it done. That and seeing a perfectly turned 6-4-3 double play.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com .]

"Every Story Had a Purpose": an appreciation of the late Lester Rodney[]


By Dave Zirin

Twelve years ago, my mother sent me an article about the age 80 and older national tennis champion, a man named Lester Rodney. At first I thought her intent was a none-too-subtle hint for me to exercise ("If he can do it..."). But the article was in fact a piece about the elderly tennis champion's past, when he was known as "Red" Rodney and improbably brought together sports and the politics of social justice. As sports editor of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily Worker, from 1936-1958, Lester was a top sports writer who led the first sustained campaign to integrate Major League Baseball. He was also one of the first writers to remark on a Negro League player named Jackie Robinson, and he was the last living sportswriter to cover the famous 1938 boxing match between The Brown Bomber Joe Louis and Hitler's favorite Max Schmeling. And now he's gone.

On December 22, 2009, Lester died at the age of 98. With him goes a living link to one of the most forgotten movements in US history: the Communist Party's campaigning and protesting for racial justice twenty years before the civil rights movement, and the central role of the radical press in agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball. I remember reading his story and being shocked that I'd never heard of the man or the movement. When I became a sportswriter for a small town newspaper, I contacted Lester through an intermediary, Frank Fried, and we conducted a series of interviews that left me both educated and utterly charmed. There is a stereotype of the old embittered leftist, the ex-communist who, like Lester, was harassed by the McCarthyites and then left the party when the extent of Stalin's crimes was revealed. But Lester was a man with a twinkle in his eye. When I told him I wanted to go around the country with him to tell his story, the then 93-year-old Lester declined and said, "Ah, to be 80 again."

He had no regrets about his radical past. As he said to me,

"People who weren't around during the 1930s can't fully grasp what it was like politically. In New York if you were on a college campus and you weren't some kind of radical, Communist, socialist, or Trotskyist, you were considered brain-dead, and you probably were! That's what all conversation was about during the Depression. One day, I met someone selling a paper, the Daily Worker. I immediately connected with the tone of it, and I was ready to question capitalism at that time. But what caught my eye was that they also had a weekly column on sports."

It caught his eye though because it was the one part of the paper that left Lester disgusted. The Daily Worker lectured that sports were little more than crude brainwashing of the workers.

As Lester told me,

"My feelings about the Daily Worker paper peaked enough that I sent a letter to them just mildly suggesting that, yes, they ought to speak about what's wrong with sports and so on, but realize that sports are also something that are meaningful to American workers and for good reasons. I didn't make some big argument that a collective effort of a team, the coming together, and finding satisfaction in getting the job well done, is some kind of revolutionary act. I didn't go into all that but I did say that the paper ought to relax and cover sports and respect people who are interested in sports. They called me in and I was hired to head it up--even though at that point I hadn't even joined the Party."

Lester, who was a top athlete until he had to quit all teams when his family was financially ruined in 1929, jumped at the chance to be a part of the sports world. Armed with a trusty press pass, he was in the locker rooms, at the batting cages, and standing ringside. He was called the "Press Box Red." But he didn't just talk to players about X's and O's, especially when it came to the color line.

He said to me,

"I'll tell you a story: In 1937 we were in the dressing room at Yankee Stadium and somebody asked a young Joe DiMaggio, "Joe, who's the best pitcher you've faced?" And without hesitation young Joe said, "Satchel Paige." He didn't say "Satchel Paige who ought to be in the big leagues," he just said Satchel Paige. So that was a huge headline in the next day's Daily Worker sports page in the biggest type I had: " 'Paige best pitcher ever faced' --DiMaggio."

No other paper reported that.... But we didn't see it as a virtue that we were the only people reporting on this. We wanted to broaden this thing and end the damned ban." Lester's work in the sportswriting trenches complemented the activist campaign he launched off the field. Petitioners gathered 1.5 million signatures collected outside of stadiums to end the ban. Unions, where the CP had serious influence, marched with banners that read "End Jim Crow in Baseball."

Lester demonstrated that the beauty of sport and the fight for social justice were not counterposed but could dance together with a wicked grace. As he was fond of saying, "Every story has a purpose." The stories had purpose because Lester had purpose. The national pastime, forever changed by the Press Box Red.

Rest in Peace, Lester.