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A sportswriter out in left field

Press Box Red The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports Irwin Silber Temple University Press: 236 pp., $19.95 paper

October 19, 2003|Allen Barra | Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Just when we thought Jules Tygiel's "Baseball's Great Experiment" and Arnold Rampersad's "Jackie Robinson" had told us everything we needed to know about the integration of baseball, out of left field and out of the blue comes the story of Lester Rodney. Oops -- correct field, wrong color. Rodney was and is an unapologetic communist (though he quit the party in 1958, when he finally accepted the evidence of Stalin's purges). Up to now, Rodney has been no more than a footnote in books about Robinson (and Roy Campanella, who argued his ghostwriter, Dick Young, into leaving Rodney's name in Campy's autobiography). "Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports," written with Rodney's cooperation by Irwin Silber, a veteran left-wing author and former editor of the folk magazine Sing Out!, fills a notable gap in American sports history.

Everyone acknowledges that there was much agitation for the major league baseball owners to break the color line in the 1930s, but seldom, outside of an occasional reference to a black newspaper of the period, does anyone tell us who did the agitating. Rodney -- a 25-year-old NYU night school student from Brooklyn when he became the sports editor and columnist for the Daily Worker, the largest, most influential communist newspaper in the country -- wasn't the only agitator, but he was the smartest and most persistent. Dodgers executive Branch Rickey admitted as much when he ordered sportswriter Arthur Mann to remove all mention of Rodney and the Daily Worker from the "official" version of the signing of Robinson.

As a communist who loved sports, Rodney had two major obstacles to overcome. One was convincing other sports correspondents and the capitalists who owned the teams that he was a legitimate sportswriter; the other was convincing his party bosses that a game controlled by capitalists should be covered in the Daily Worker. The latter proved to be the tougher task. Before Rodney, sports coverage at the Daily Worker consisted of sending a writer to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field to comment, of the raucous fans, "Are these 'bad elements'? Many are workers who have so identified themselves with their team that they cannot sleep or eat when the team loses. The leanness of American life under capitalism drives them to this fever." Or "it is unquestionably true that American workers are greatly interested in professional sports, far too much, in fact, for their own class interest." Before he could shake up the country, Rodney had to loosen up his comrades, who "seemed uneasy about sports, as though they'd be criticized by some Party higher-ups if they really got into it."

He had to work extra innings to get access to athletes and officials, not always because of his politics: "The Communist thing rarely came up. Most ballplayers weren't sure what the Daily Worker was. Maybe they thought it was a trade union paper." The problem was that the DW didn't have much of a circulation compared with the major papers. Still, its clout was well out of proportion to the size of its readership, particularly since Rodney was free to talk about issues, like Jim Crow, that other papers wouldn't go near. After a while, writers (including the archconservative Dick Young, who despised him) would slip Rodney items they couldn't use but wanted to see in print. "Like we were the conscience of the trade," Rodney says.

Rodney not only accepted that role, he relished it, and he had some influential readers. Bob Considine, Hearst's top sportswriter, reports on an encounter in 1940 between Rodney and former President Hoover, who was then heading the Finnish Relief Fund, at a reception for two visiting Finnish athletes:

" 'Your paper has been belting my brains out lately,' Hoover said to Rodney with a nervous laugh.

"Rodney shrugged, 'Because you're helping the Finns, I guess.'

" 'You forget this,' Hoover told him, with a slight rise in choler. 'In 1923, when Russia was starving, I raised $75 million for its people.'

" 'They must have been White Russians,' Rodney replied."

Whether they were willing to admit it or not, other influential people read the Daily Worker. For instance, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner (and, in Silber's words, "a stone racist"). Rodney aimed open letter after open letter at Landis, hammering away at the issue of integration in baseball. As Rodney had managed to wrangle important quotes from the likes of Leo Durocher and even Joe DiMaggio (who generously acknowledged Satchel Paige as the greatest pitcher he'd ever seen), Landis could pretend to ignore the color line only so long. His successor, Happy Chandler, was as eager to jump across it as Rickey. Finally, on a late autumn day in 1945, Sgt. Lester Rodney, stationed with the Army in the South Pacific, received a most gratifying telegram from a friend in New York. "Congratulations. Dodgers yesterday signed Jackie Robinson for Montreal farm. You did it!"

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