Lester Rodney, the Daily Worker, and the Integration of Baseball
This article was originally published in SABR’s The National Pastime, Vol. 19, in 1999.
The whole history leading up to Jackie Robinson has usually been that an electric light went on in the head of the noble Branch Rickey one morning and he ended baseball discrimination.” As the lean, white-haired Lester Rodney speaks in his living room in Rossmoor, the sprawling retirement community across the bay from San Francisco, these events are now nearly half a century and three thousand miles removed. Important details now seem in danger of being lost forever.
Given the power of the pen Rodney once wielded and its influence on baseball’s integration, the former Daily Worker sportswriter might well have written the history himself. But everything in life — no matter how long a life it may be — is a matter of priorities, and in recent years Rodney has switched his from writing about sports to playing them. Had he taken the time to write the book, he might not have stayed in such extraordinary shape and might never have become the first top-ranked tennis player in California’s eighty-five-and-over bracket. So, for now, an important chapter in the story is known mostly to those who know Rodney — and who happen to ask.
Although he scoffs at the notion that Brooklyn’s “Great Mahatma” acted alone, Rodney doesn’t mean to minimize the credit due the Dodgers president. Some club owner actually had to put a black ballplayer into a major league uniform and Rickey acted while the others mumbled. It’s just that he knows there were a lot of other people generating the electricity that finally turned on that light.
“A Communist sportswriter”
Not the least of them was Rodney himself. By the time Robinson took his position at first base in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, more than a decade had passed since Rodney first took up the cause of integrating baseball as sports editor of the Communist Party’s New York Daily Worker.
Today the concept of a “Communist sportswriter” seems a strange proposition. In Rodney’s day it was not quite so exotic, but still no one would confuse the Daily Worker’s sports department with the “toy department” of any other newspaper. By tradition, the sportswriter’s job is merely to interpret the world of sports; the Communist sportswriter’s job was to change it.
The first thing Rodney tried to change was what The Sporting News in 1923 called baseball’s “tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible.” In one respect, the cause was a natural for a group that considered itself “the Party of Negro and White.” After all, the Communists had distinguished themselves in defense of the nine black “Scottsboro Boys” charged with the 1931 rape of two white women in Alabama — a cause few others would touch.
The basics of baseball’s integration story are, of course, familiar to baseball fans: Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, whose athletic achievements had already prompted one sportswriter to call him the “Jim Thorpe of his race,”and took him from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He sent him out for a season of minor league ball in Montreal and finally put him in Ebbets Field the following year. But, until the 1995 publication of David Falkner’s Great Time Coming: The Life Of Jackie Robinson From Baseball To Birmingham, no mainstream publication had ever provided any detail of how in 1936 “the Daily Worker began a steady and unremitting campaign for integration … spearheaded by sports writer and editor Lester Rodney,” or noted that it was not even until “A year or so after the ‘Worker‘ began its push,” that “the Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely circulated Negro weekly in the nation, initiated its own campaign.”
Digging out the story
Rodney’s method was quite simple. He would ask questions other writers wouldn’t or couldn’t. The first goal was to locate the exact whereabouts of The Sporting News’s “tacit understanding.”
He recalls, “First we’d go to the top officials and they’d say, ‘There’s nothing written, it’s up to the club owners.’ We’d go to the owners and they’d say, ‘My heart is with you but the players would never stand for it.’ Then you go to the players and shoot that down.”
A typical July 19, 1939, Worker story, “Big Leaguers Rip Jim Crow,” quoted members of the Cincinnati Reds. (The franchise often found its fate intertwined with that of Rodney’s party. According to one team historian, each “crisis in affairs between the United States and Soviet Russia” brought new demands “that the management change the team’s name” despite the fact that “the Reds have been the Reds since 1869, one year before Nicolai Lenin was born and ten years before Stalin’s birthday.”) Manager Bill McKechnie claimed, “I’d use negroes if I were given permission.” Bucky Walters declared them “some of the best players I’ve ever seen,” and Johnny Vander Meer concluded, “I don’t see why they’re banned.” “Sensational stuff in 1939,” Rodney remembers.
Two seasons earlier he’d published an interview with Satchel Paige, the most famous Negro League star. Rodney recalls, “At the end of the interview I said to Paige that Dazzy Vance came to the Dodgers at twenty-nine years of age, which was old for a ballplayer, but that when he was thirty-three he won twenty-eight games. Paige, who was then thirty himself, says, ‘I don’t think they can keep us out three more years.’ But he was wrong. He had to wait another eleven years. Very tragic and it bothers me that Paige is always portrayed as an egocentric guy, content to be a big fish in a small pond. It’s absolutely false.” (Joe DiMaggio once told the Daily Worker that Paige, whom he’d played against in postseason exhibitions was, “the best pitcher I ever faced,” but Paige ultimately became the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame primarily on the basis of his Negro League career.)
In 1941, Rodney and his confederates stepped up the campaign, sending telegrams to all major league team owners asking them to try out black players. ”The only fully positive response we got was from William Benswanger of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next spring we arranged a tryout for Roy Campanella — who was about twenty-one then — and two other players. And then Benswanger came under intense pressure — I’ve never known the exact nature not to hold the tryouts, and he backed out as gracefully as he could.
“I never slammed him for it, because he was the first honest guy who answered, ‘You’re right and I’m willing to give it a try.’ And then he came under all that pressure. So that was the first tryout that never happened.
“Imagine how baseball history would have been changed if Benswanger had told all the other owners to go f— themselves and hired Campanella, Satchel Paige, and maybe three other players from the [Negro National League] Homestead Grays who were the best team in baseball and played in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was the heart of black baseball then. The Pirates would immediately have won five straight pennants.”
Invisible Men, Donn Rogosin’s 1983 history of the Negro Leagues, is fairly typical of the short shrift usually accorded the Communists’ efforts, dismissing the Benswanger affair as a “nonexistent tryout,” and concluding that “the black players and the black press were unimpressed by the Communist campaigns.”
The Communists, however, clearly impressed at least one black player: Roy Campanella’s 1952 autobiography acknowledges that the Daily Worker had “pounded hard and unceasingly against the color line in organized ball.” What makes this recognition particularly compelling is the fact that the book’s author, New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young, was known neither for left-wing sympathies nor graciousness. The Hall of Fame catcher himself insisted on it.
According to Rodney, “Campanella believed that baseball was the most important reason why the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954. When I heard that I said, ‘Come on, Roy, what are you talking about?’ Campy said, ‘All I know is that the ballclubs going down south traveling together, playing together, living together, were the first all the time. They were the first in hotels; they were the first in trains. Don’t tell me it wasn’t the most important thing.”
At first Campanella’s conclusion may seem that of a man overestimating the significance of his own corner of the world. But the record shows that Birmingham, Alabama, actually ended its prohibition of interracial sports a month before the Court ordered its schools desegregated in the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education decision. The reason? To allow Campy, Jackie, and the rest of the Dodgers to play a spring training exhibition game there.
And a letter to the August 20, 1939, Daily Worker appears to give the lie to the alleged indifference of black sportswriters. The letter-writer takes the “opportunity to congratulate you and the Daily Worker for the way you have joined with us in the current series concerning Negro Players in the major leagues, as well as all your past great efforts in this aspect,” and goes on to express the hope of further collaboration. The author was Wendell Smith, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper whose nationwide readership would exceed 400,000 in the following decade.
“You know, Jules Tygiel’s book [Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy] was the first to acknowledge our efforts and that wasn’t until 1983,” Rodney recalls. “In that Ken Burns series [the nine-part 1994 Public Broadcasting System documentary of baseball history] it mentions that [manager] Leo Durocher told a sportswriter he would use some of the great Negroes in a minute on the Dodgers if he were given permission. I’m the sportswriter he told that to. Burns, of course, had a big corporate-funded series and he did manage to push the role of the Negro to the center, as he did with his Civil War series. But even PBS is not so radical on these things,” he adds with a grin, “as you can tell by how many radicals you’ll see on the McNeil-Lehrer news hour. So you can’t fault Burns for not mentioning the Daily Worker.”
Starting a career
It’s probably less accurate to say that Rodney and the integration campaign — eventually including “End Jim Crow in Baseball” petitions with two million signatures gathered by the Young Communist League and labor organizations like the National Maritime Union — were written out of history than that they were just never written into it in the first place, although David Falkner’s recent book noted how “remarkable was the passion and the insistence of the campaign which was generally lost on white America though not on those in government who were always vigilant on the twin menaces of Communist agitation and black unrest.”
Foremost among the vigilant was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who singled Rodney out for individual mention in Masters of Deceit, the central text of anticommunism.
”We’re sort of considered folk heroes by many young people now, but things like that created problems for our children in high school in the 1950s,” Rodney says today.
Rodney himself was no Red Diaper Baby. He recalls his Republican father displaying a window sign in their Brooklyn house mourning the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. But then “in 1931 or ’32 — during the depression — three of us rented a cold water flat on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village — ten dollars a month. We were there for the Bohemian atmosphere, the cellar clubs, poetry readings. We were poor as hell, but we didn’t know it.
“I wrote some pulp magazine stuff to pay the rent — cheap romances, love stories, just junk. Then we all did our creative writing and critiqued each other. We sold a few stories; I don’t even have them anymore. It all got lost or thrown out when I went into the Army. It was just about life and the torments of youth. It was a very heady New York, Greenwich Villagey atmosphere; the cafeterias were humming with literary discussions and the Communists at that time were impinging on everybody’s consciousness.”
Bohemianism never dulled Rodney’s interest in sports, so one thing that was clear to him about the Communists was that when they addressed sports it was an embarrassment. When he told them so in a letter to the Worker, he was invited in to discuss it and he wound up doing the occasional weekly piece — gratis.
By 1936, the Communists were eager to shed sinister or foreign identifications in the public mind and entered their “Popular Front” period. “Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism” replaced “Towards Soviet America” as the party’s slogan. The Daily Worker wondered whether it should now deal with popular concerns like sports on a more regular basis. When a readers poll came back 6-1 in favor of daily sports coverage, the paper asked Rodney to take it on.
Of course, since this was the Communist party’s newspaper, the question would not be settled as simply as that. There were those who thought the paper should cover “people’s sports” like soccer, not “corporate sports” like baseball. But once the paper decided that a commitment to “Twentieth Century Americanism” required coverage of the national pastime, that coverage would be activist.
It must be noted that even if Ken Burns did not give Rodney his due, Leo Durocher did. In his 1993 book, The Era 1947-1957: When the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers Ruled the World, Roger Kahn quotes Durocher telling Rodney, “For a f—— Communist, you know your baseball.”
“I was a fan,” Rodney reiterates today. “That’s crucial. They couldn’t have hired just an ideologue to run the campaign. You had to know baseball.”
The integration campaign was not the limit of the Worker’s innovative baseball coverage. By 1938 the Americanization of the party had progressed sufficiently to allow it to engage New York Yankee third baseman Red (hair, not politics) Rolfe to cover the World Series from a player’s point of view.
”I’d go up to Yankee Stadium after a World Series game and I’d jump in the locker room,” Rodney remembers. “I’m in a hurry. Our deadline is the earliest of any of the papers and so I’d try to speed things up. I’d say, ‘Red, that was pretty much a key moment when Crosetti decided to go to third instead of going for the double play’ and he’d say, ‘No’ — you couldn’t speed him up — ‘No, no, no. I wouldn’t say that at all.’ And he painstakingly would go into his own view of the game. This guy was a Dartmouth College graduate. He had just got married and wanted to show his wife that he was more than just a jock. That’s why he agreed to do it for the nominal payment we could afford. He took great pride in these things.”
Rodney once introduced heavyweight champion Joe Louis to novelist Richard Wright, author of Native Son. “Joe Louis was training at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Sportswriters were invited to go to these things as part of the prefight publicity, so I told them I had a guest along, a rather well-known writer. Louis and Wright had about twenty minutes alone. Apparently Louis had once seen a collection of Wright’s stories, so he knew about him. Richard told me on the way back that although Joe wasn’t formally educated he was no fool, and that they’d had a fascinating discussion.”
Since Rodney usually operated as a one-man sports section it might take him a while to get to every sport, but there wasn’t much he missed. Given that more than three out of every four current National Basketball Association players are black, it will surprise some to know that there ever could have been an issue about letting blacks play the professional game, but there was. And the Worker was in the middle of it.
“Joe Lapchick, who was the center on the original Celtics, coached the Knickerbockers, the first New York professional team, and his son Richard later told me that his father, a devout Catholic, said ‘That damned Daily Worker has done more good helping me to get Sweetwater Clifton [the team’s first black player] on the Knicks.” This came after Jackie Robinson and it just flowed out of it. There was no big fuss about it. We wrote about it, but not in a scolding way as if the Knicks were the only sinners. There was actually more work done on basketball integration in Boston [where the Celtics signed the first black NBA players] than in New York.”
Religion and tennis
It’s over forty years now since Rodney left the Communist Party following publication of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Joseph Stalin. While Rodney may now think of himself and his comrades as having been “rigid simpletons” back then, he has never renounced the goal of social equality that led him to join. Nor does he have any difficulty finding political relevance in events of half a century ago. He gladly explains his belief that Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese articulated the principles behind affirmative action years before anyone had given the theory a name.
“In 1947, when Jackie Robinson had first come up he was taking a lot of punishment because he had promised Rickey not to fight back, no matter what. And the bad guys were taking advantage of him. Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals came down on his heel at first base. Another time some little-known shortstop for the Chicago Cubs pretended that Robinson had done something wrong sliding into second and jumped on top of him and began pummeling him and Robinson lay there until the umpires came and pushed the shortstop off. We sportswriters spent time in the dugout before games and knew some of the white players on the Dodgers were troubled by what was happening. The discussions would go something like this: ‘Democracy means that everybody’s the same, so you treat everybody the same, so that means we don’t do anything special. You treat Jackie the same way as anybody.’
“Pee Wee cut a layer deeper and he scratched his Kentucky head and he said, ‘Yeah, democracy means everybody is the same, but things aren’t the same for Jackie because he’s the only colored guy and he’s catching special hell because of that, so maybe there’s a way we can make things the same for him.’ If that isn’t affirmative action! Here’s a baseball player saying this. That’s the special contribution of Pee Wee Reese.”
When Rodney moved to Los Angeles in 1958 — coincidentally the same year Walter O’Malley turned Pee Wee and the rest of the Trolley Dodgers into Freeway Dodgers — he continued in journalism, eventually becoming religion editor of the Long Beach Press Telegram, a Knight-Ridder paper.
“How did I become religion editor? How does the real world work? The managing editor is unhappy with the religion pages and comes into the press room and says, ‘One of you guys has got to be able to do a better job. Rodney — you!’ I found it quite interesting; it was the time of the ecumenical movement. I was actually cited by the National Council of Churches for my coverage of churches and the Vietnam War.”
But unusual as that particular turn in his life was, his 1975 retirement from the Press Telegram gave him the time to do something even more remarkable — to pursue the second career in sports that caused a local newspaper to dub him the “George Burns of tennis.” He joined the senior circuit at age sixty-five with mixed results, but reached number seven ranking in Southern California in the seventy-plus bracket. From then on he has outlasted — or maybe outlived — the opposition.
At age seventy-nine, Rodney and his wife Clare moved north to be closer to their children, but he still teamed with a southern partner to become the top-ranked doubles combination in Southern California in the eighty-plus category. In singles, he reached as high as number two statewide and number six nationally. Rodney still keeps his hand in journalism with the occasional article for the weekly Rossmoor News. In a 1995 piece he explained the secret of his tennis success: a player’s best chance for attaining high ranking in any five-year age bracket comes in the first year when he is still relatively “young,” and he predicted that “come 1996 yours truly will magically metamorphose from a tired old eighty-four to a frisky young eighty-five.” And sure enough, after winning his first two singles tournaments Rodney finally achieved the number one spot — at age eighty-five.
TOM GALLAGHER has been a Socialist all of his adult life and a Dodger fan longer than that. He lives in San Francisco.
Byron LaGoy, used by permission, Creative Commons 3.0 (CC BY-SA)