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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Updated: May 3, 8:58 AM ET
Rodney pushed for MLB integration

By William Weinbaum
ESPN

Sepia and disintegrating, bound and boxed, available from a repository only by special request, back issues of the long-defunct Communist Party of America's "Daily Worker" newspaper contain a mostly overlooked side of the baseball integration saga.

Lester Rodney
Lester Rodney became the first sports editor at the "Daily Worker" in 1936.

On the campus of New York University, where Lester Rodney was a student three-quarters of a century ago, the archivist of the Tamiment Library recently requisitioned several years' worth of the newspapers from a New Jersey warehouse on ESPN's request to examine Rodney's crusade against segregation in the national pastime.

At NYU in 1936, Rodney, then 25, read the "Daily Worker" and decried its sports coverage in a letter to the editor, according to "Press Box Red," Irwin Silber's 2003 biography of Rodney. Though bereft of experience, Rodney was soon hired as the paper's first sports editor.

Eleven years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues, Rodney, a Jew from Brooklyn, turned the sports page of the "Daily Worker" into a launching pad against organized baseball's Jim Crow exclusion of African-Americans. "Nobody was making any fuss about the fact that the great black players -- we called them Negroes at that time -- were not allowed to play in the big leagues," Rodney said in a 1996 interview with ESPN.

Unlike his counterparts at mainstream newspapers, Rodney joined the era's black sports scribes such as Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American in reporting on the Negro Leagues, pursuing and publishing interviews with whites and blacks in baseball about the racial barrier in the majors, and advocating change.

"His work, with an audience, encouraged black writers," says University of Pittsburgh historian Rob Ruck. "The two big impacts were with black writers and in mobilizing people."

May Day Parade circa 1940
United Wholesale and Warehouse Union workers demonstrate at a May Day parade (circa 1940) in New York City.

Jack Ziebel says that in 1937, when he was 11, he and dozens of others picketed outside Yankee Stadium in favor of baseball integration. The "community activity," as Ziebel describes it, was sparked by the sports pages of Rodney, whom he calls "a hero."

In the 1950s, American Communists were pariahs and the "Daily Worker" was overwhelmingly discredited for its Stalinist rhetoric. But in the '30s and '40s, though its circulation was estimated as only in the tens of thousands, the paper was influential, especially among labor unions and in the melting pot of New York City, which elected two city council members from the Communist Party (one of whom was African-American).

Rodney and the "Daily Worker" promoted petition drives that he said generated more than a million signatures urging baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to integrate. "Rodney made it seem that this was the 'American Way,'" says Mark Naison, Fordham University professor of African-American studies.

When Rodney served in the Pacific during World War II, his sports department colleagues Bill Mardo and Nat Low sustained the paper's baseball integration campaign.

In 1945, as the war was ending, African-Americans were returning from service in their country's segregated armed forces and New York politicians were deliberating over measures against baseball segregation. Dodgers President Branch Rickey, a fervent anti-Communist, took the momentous step of signing a black man, Jackie Robinson, to a minor league contract.

It's unclear whether the crusade initiated by Rodney affected Rickey's thinking.

"There's a connection that made it happen in New York with Rickey," says historian Kelly Rusinack, who wrote a master's thesis at Clemson University in 1995 on the newspaper's role in desegregating baseball. "The evidence is that it was an indirect connection."

Rickey biographer Lee Lowenfish ("Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman") notes the contribution of Rodney's "Daily Worker" and Smith, Lacy and the black papers to the "ferment" on the issue. He says it was a hot topic for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was in contact with Rickey.

"I think the direct evidence is that Rickey announced the signing of Robinson in October 1945 [two months after Rickey and Robinson met secretly in Brooklyn] because Mayor La Guardia was ready to make integration of baseball a campaign issue and he didn't want political pressure from a liberal like La Guardia, let alone communists," says Lowenfish.

Sports historian Larry Lester says he believes Rodney's efforts had a significant effect on Rickey's move and its subsequent success. "It made his job easier to sell the signing of Jackie Robinson to the American public, because Lester Rodney had already planted the seeds for this historic event to happen."

"We didn't do it for credit," Rodney said in '96, "and I don't know how much we speeded up the inevitable." As for Rickey, Rodney said, "He was going to be the big hero and baseball legend in history -- he is, and rightfully so, because he did it … and once he did it, he fought for it."

In "Press Box Red," Rodney recounted an April 10, 1947, scene in a jammed Ebbets Field press box when Brooklyn announced its historic call-up of Robinson to the Dodgers, as he batted against them for their Montreal farm club in an exhibition game. Three writers, Rodney said, approached him and said something like, "Well, you guys can take a lot of credit for this."

Rodney, who renounced his Communist Party membership in 1958, was previously a card-carrying member of both the Communist Party and the Baseball Writers Association of America. The latter elected him an honorary lifetime member.

In January, a month after Rodney's death at the age of 98, the BBWAA's New York chapter held its annual awards dinner and recited the names of those connected with the sport who had died in the preceding year. But the organization neglected to mention Rodney.

Until he was in his 80s and 90s, there was almost no recognition of Rodney's fight for equality. Unlike Smith and Lacy, he is not in the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but in 2005, Rodney was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals, which bills itself as an alternative to the Hall in Cooperstown.

As the old copies of the "Daily Worker" crumble, the work of Rodney is perpetuated in other ways.

Says Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History and African-American studies at the University of Houston, "Rodney was early in teaching an audience that sports was a significant sociological force."

"His legacy is he had a hand in integration," says Chris Lamb, professor of communication at the College of Charleston. "Like many revolutionaries, he ended up in the background."

William Weinbaum is a producer in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, who also produced the TV feature on Rodney. Weinbaum's work appears on "Outside the Lines." Jeremy Schaap, an ESPN national correspondent and anchor, contributed to this report.