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)


I’ve
been told that I’m the only sportswriter still perpendicular
who was at that fight”—since 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
Worker
s 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 paper’s 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 Rodney’s career as a communist sportswriter
went from present improbable to past unmentionable and essentially
disappeared from the printed record until the publication of Jules
Tygiel’s 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 Silber’s 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 paper’s
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 Worker’s editor, he was—to his great surprise—invited
to discuss his letter, and soon afterwards asked if he’d like
to edit the sports section, which meant writing the entire section.
With baseball then the country’s 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 Robinson’s 1947 Brooklyn Dodger debut,
the New York Times acknowledged, “Black weeklies…as
well as the Daily Worker…had pushed hard for baseball’s
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 Paige’s challenge to the World Series winner to take on
a black all-star team and eventually covered the Young Communist
League’s 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 Rodney’s 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
Rickey’s 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 baseball’s 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 Party’s
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 Rodney’s career with his quip, “For a fucking Communist,
you sure know your baseball.” 


Tom Gallagher
is an activist and freelance writer based in California.