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Hero had one strike against him

His role in ending baseball segregation was ignored. Now Lester Rodney, a former communist, is being recognized.

July 12, 2004|David Davis | Special to the Times

For 50 years, Lester Rodney was a forgotten footnote in perhaps the most controversial sports story of the 20th century: Jackie Robinson and the breaking of baseball's color barrier.

Now, the 93-year-old Rodney is getting his due.

In the decade before Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rodney was the sports editor of the Daily Worker, a newspaper better known as the house organ of the American Communist Party. With strident editorials and feature stories about what he dubbed "The Crime of the Big Leagues," Rodney was an early, often lonely voice in the struggle to end segregation in baseball.

But Rodney's contribution was never acknowledged. After the Red Scare of the 1950s, when anti-communist fervor swept the nation, his work was considered, in the parlance of the time, "Commie propaganda." In 1997, six years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a national conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game recognized the efforts of Rodney and colleague Bill Mardo. That same year, Arnold Rampersad published his authoritative book "Jackie Robinson: A Biography," in which he noted that "in the campaign to end Jim Crow in baseball, the most vigorous efforts came from the communist press, most notably from Lester Rodney."

The recent publication of a new biography of Rodney by Irwin Silber, "Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports," has completed the improbable revival and made Rodney a popular speaker at baseball functions. On Sunday he will deliver the keynote address for the "Shrine of the Eternals" induction ceremony of the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary.

Today Rodney lives in a seniors community in Walnut Creek. He admits he's pleased with the spate of publicity, but he downplays his importance.

"My small contribution was getting on the record that there were black players good enough to play in the majors," he says. "Anyone with a social conscience would have done the same thing."

Odd jobs after 1929 crash

Rodney grew up a true-blue Dodgers fan. Born in Manhattan, he was raised in Brooklyn. He remembers skipping school, at age 9, to watch the 1920 World Series -- or at least a part of it.

"The right-centerfield fence didn't quite make it to the ground, so you could only see the center fielder, the second baseman, the catcher and the batter," he recalls. "I was one of six kids lying flat on the sidewalk on Bedford Avenue, watching [Cleveland Indian] Stan Coveleski outpitch [Dodger spit-baller] Burleigh Grimes."

He grew up in comfort, but the stock market crash of 1929 devastated his family's fortunes. Rodney had to put aside his partial scholarship at Syracuse University to work. He worked as a clerk, a lifeguard, even a chauffeur for a rich family.

The Depression, Rodney says, forced many Americans to reassess their politics. "It was a cataclysmic event that changed people's views," he says of that period. "In New York in the 1930s, if you weren't a communist or a socialist you were considered brain-dead."

In 1936, the Daily Worker began to publish sports articles to broaden its appeal and "American-ize" the Communist Party. The 25-year-old Rodney wasn't impressed. "The articles were heavy-handed and doctrinaire," he recalls. "It was more about attacking sports as a capitalist tool than covering sports."

Rodney wrote a letter suggesting ways to improve the section. The Worker's editor was so taken that he hired Rodney for $12 a week. Shortly after he took the job, Rodney joined the Communist Party.

Almost immediately, Rodney attacked the color line in baseball. In so doing, he was attacking the very foundation of sports. During the 1930s, baseball was truly the national pastime, with college football, horse racing and boxing considered second-tier (pro football was in its infancy). If baseball was king, then New York City was its main fiefdom. The city boasted three of the 16 major-league teams -- the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees -- but the city's mainstream sportswriters were reluctant to criticize the sport's racist system.

Even in its heyday in the 1930s, the circulation of the Daily Worker -- which ceased publication in 1957 -- was less than 100,000, but its clout in liberal-minded New York wasn't insignificant. As managing editor Alan Max once quipped: "It's the least read and most quoted newspaper in the United States."

In agitating for change, Rodney attended Negro League games and interviewed legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. He pestered major league players, managers and league officials about their views. He reprinted articles written by journalists from all-black newspapers. And he galvanized a petition drive that landed 1 million signatures on the desk of baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis, a fervent opponent of allowing blacks to play in the major leagues.

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