For nearly a quarter of a century, Lester Rodney was the sports columnist and sports editor for The Daily Worker, the largest and most influential Communist newspaper in the U.S. For more than a decade he was one of the leading agitators for the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. In the 1940s, he became an intriguing footnote to the signing of Jackie Robinson and other black ballplayers.
Thanks to the publication of Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports (Temple University Press) by Irwin Silber, Rodney’s story becomes much more than a footnote, and his role as one of the key figures in the most important era in baseball history is established. Rodney, now 92, spoke to us from his home in the Bay Area.
VV: For decades you were an outsider. Now I see on the Internet that your story is available online at Wal-Mart.
LR: I never thought I’d live to see that.
VV: Who do you like in the Series this year?
LR: Well, how can I not root for the Cubs? The Red Sox created a lot of their own misery over the last 50 years with their racial policy.
VV: I know. They passed up a chance to sign Willie Mays. Instead of “the Curse of the Bambino,” they ought to call it “the Curse of Willie Mays.”
LR: I think when you get away from the Eastern seaboard, the Cubs are a much more interesting story. You gotta root for Dusty Baker.
VV: The last time the Cubs were in the World Series was 1945, and about 10 days after it was over, you received a telegram from a friend saying that Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson.
LR: Yeah, I was a sergeant in the army serving in the Pacific, and a friend sent me a telegram saying, “You did it!” I didn’t do it, of course. Many people did it. But I have to admit that it was one of the proudest days of my life.
VV: You were one of the leading agitators with your open letters to Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis—
LR: A blatant racist. The baseball owners of that period couldn’t have picked a more appropriate man to represent their policies. He simply kept denying that there was a color barrier. I would write stories with headlines like “Can You Read, Judge Landis?” and “Can You Hear, Judge Landis?” I know we got to him. The Daily Worker didn’t have a big circulation, but we got noticed, and what we wrote was read by people in baseball and by other journalists. We had an advantage over the black press of the period, whom most sportswriters could simply ignore because their work wasn’t seen by many white people.
VV: I can’t imagine what it must have been like getting the players, the owners, and other journalists to accept you. How often did the issue of Communism come up?
LR: To tell you the truth, not very often. I think some players just thought it was a trade union paper or something.
VV: But why did the owners give you access?
LR: Hey, I was helping to bring some business in. (Laughs.) They were capitalists, they wanted to sell tickets. They didn’t care whom they sold the tickets to.
VV: What about the other journalists?
LR: It took a while for them to accept me, but once I did it I got along pretty well with most of them.
VV: One of the things I liked about Press Box Red is that you get to see a side of some people that you might never see anywhere else.
LR: That’s true. I saw some sides of ballplayers that others didn’t because they weren’t asking them the same questions I was. Joe DiMaggio, for instance. It stirred up a lot of fuss when DiMaggio was honest enough to admit to me that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw. That took guts, and it was honest. I had a lot of respect for Joe back then. He changed when the aura of superstardom overcame him, but he had a decency in him that you didn’t see in too many guys. Leo Durocher, too. Leo was very open in his praise of black ballplayers. You heard a lot of stuff about Leo, both good and bad. I think it’s all true. But somewhere it’s got to go on the ledger that he helped integration.
VV: I heard some good things about Dizzy Dean.
LR: Now there was an interesting character. He’s really the kind of guy you don’t see around today. He was a white Southerner from a dirt-poor background—a “cracker,” as they used to deride him—but he barnstormed with Satchel Paige and was very open in his admiration for the blacks he played against.
VV: I’m curious. What did you think of the Rush Limbaugh incident? I wrote an article [in Slate] essentially in support of what Limbaugh said, that Donovan McNabb was in fact overrated and that a lot of sportswriters were rooting for him to succeed because he was black. I admitted that it was certainly true in my case. My liberal friends were horrified. Several of them won’t speak to me now. That’s certainly an indication that in one form or another, the subject of race is still a hot button in sports.
LR: I think that’s true, and I thought of that when I heard about what Limbaugh said. Of course a lot of people, myself included, rooted for black ballplayers because they were black. I don’t know why that should be considered a controversial statement. That leads, inevitably, to overrating certain players. I’m not defending Limbaugh’s politics, but I think he just said out loud what some people were thinking. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with it.
VV: I think part of the reaction was due to everyone’s refusal to even acknowledge the issue of race in sports, as if it no longer exists just because there are so many great black athletes. It’s almost like on the one hand everybody wants to feel that they’re liberal-minded—
LR: But they don’t want to be labeled liberal.
VV: Yes, that’s it, and everyone is anxious to equate being liberal-minded with color blindness, like, “Oh, I don’t even notice the color of the players I root for.”
LR: Yeah, that’s very interesting. In about 70 years sportswriters have gone from refusing to acknowledge there were no black players on the field to wanting to believe that all racial issues in sports have disappeared.
VV: If you were a sportswriter today, how would you address these controversial issues?
LR: I’d go right on agitating.