An Interview with "Red" Rodney
93 year-old Lester "Red" Rodney was one of the most courageous and principled sports writers of his day. As the Sports Editor for the U.S. Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, from 1936-1958, he launched the fight to integrate baseball in the 1930s. He was also the first writer to scout a young second baseman named Jackie Robinson and covered the famed 1938 Joe Louis/Max Schmeling bouts.
Yet because of his background as a political radical, Rodney has remained a buried figure on the sports landscape even though, like thousands of others, he left the Party in 1958 when the extent of the crimes of Josef Stalin were revealed. His story is now being told in the newly published book Press Box Red by Irwin Silber (Temple University Press.). Still a self-proclaimed radical after all these years, Rodney speaks with DAVE ZIRIN about those days.
DZ: Were you an athlete as a teenager?
LR: I went to high school in Bensonhurst back when they had the dominant track team in New York City. They never lost a meet in four years. I ran in the middle distance relays that won the championship in the city. I also played a little basketball. I wasn’t too great, but I made the squad. I got a partial track scholarship to Syracuse but the Depression had just hit, and knocked my whole family out. We lost our home, everything. I had to go back to work. I graduated high school in ’29, right into the mouth of the crash.
DZ: What was your first contact with the Communist Party?
LR: I went to NYU at night and I had to work during the day. People who weren’t around during the 1930s, can’t fully grasp what it was like politically. In New York if you were on a college campus and you weren’t some kind of radical, Communist, socialist, or Trotskyist, you were considered brain-dead, and you probably were! That’s what all conversation was about during the Depression. One day, on the way to class, I met someone selling a paper, the Daily Worker. This person said, "Read this paper and see what you think." I immediately connected with the tone of it, and I was ready to question capitalism at that time. But what caught my eye was that they also had a weekly column on sports.
DZ: What were your thoughts on the sports section?
LR: I absolutely cringed when I read that sports page. It reflected a lot of sectarianism. They commented mostly negatively on everything. It was quite patronizing, calling sports "the opium of the masses" and all that. That’s partially true too, of course. Someone whose whole life is conjoined with following sports doesn’t follow what’s going on in the country. But at this time the party was beginning to change its demographic makeup as well. The ones who were pouring into the party were young people, born here in the states, and there were many trade unionists that played ball and were interested in sports. Ten years earlier, the party was probably 75% foreign born and they brought the prejudice of European immigrants about sports, seeing it as "grown people, wasting their time on children’s games." They couldn’t understand its appeal. When I met my wife’s father for the first time, he said, "What do you do?" I said, "I write sports." He laughed uneasily and asked "but what do you really do?" He couldn’t grasp that his daughter was marrying someone who just wrote about games.
Anyway, my feelings about the Daily Worker paper peaked enough that I sent a letter to them just mildly suggesting that, yes, they ought to speak about what’s wrong with sports and so on, but realize that sports are also something that are meaningful to American workers and for good reasons. I didn’t make some big argument that a collective effort of a team, the coming together, and finding satisfaction in getting the job well done, is some kind of revolutionary act. I didn’t go into all that but I did say that the paper ought to relax and cover sports and respect people who are interested in sports. They called me in and I was hired to head it up – even though at that point I hadn’t even joined the Party.
DZ: How widespread were the objections to a popular sports section on the Daily Worker staff?
LR: It was really a generational thing. There was one person who said, "This is ridiculous. We have a socialist paper that barely has enough money to put out eight pages, and here we’re going to devote one eighth of that paper to games?" But the editor, Clarence Hathaway, he was from Minnesota. He said, let’s check with the readers. And they actually had a poll. They asked their readers to vote on whether the Daily Worker should have a daily sports section that covers big league baseball and college sports and so on in addition to trade union activities and people overwhelmingly voted that they wanted it.
DZ: What made you think that you could reach people politically through sports?
LR: I didn’t have a full realization of what the meaning of sports could be. Looking back, when you look at the meaning of Joe Louis and what he meant when he knocked out [German boxer and Nazi party favorite] Max Schmeling in that second fight and it’s just incredible. Abner Barry was a black columnist of the day and he was assigned to Harlem during the second fight. He told how during the preparation for that fight and the fight itself, the streets were eerily deserted like a scene from after the atom bomb drops in a movie. The minute the fight was over people were teeming with people and young kids were laughing and giving the mock Hitler salute. And this was happening in every city in the country including Southern cities. In Knoxville [Tennessee] Blacks poured out into the streets and fought with the police who tried to keep them from marching. So you say there’s no social meaning to Joe Louis? There was a young Black man being led to death row and he cried out "Save me Joe Louis!" It sounds corny and hokey, but it’s true.
DZ: The Communist Party is known to have organized radio listenings around the Louis-Schmeling. Where did you hear the fight?
LR: I didn’t hear it. I worked it. I was there! I was in the press row. In fact, you know the PBS program "American Experience?" They contacted me and said they had been scouring the country for sports writers who covered that fight. And I’m the only one who covered that fight who’s still perpendicular. So they came up to my house with a big camera crew and put me on tape, and it will be on later this year. I saw first hand how meaningful Louis was. You can almost say in a sense that Joe Louis may have been just as important as Jackie Robinson, just on a different level; one of the differences being that Joe Louis was uneducated and not articulate, and at that time he was asked and he agreed to not make waves. That’s hard for people to understand today. Here’s a person in the thirties, and this is years before the Civil Rights movement.
DZ: Did it occur to you immediately after coming onto the Daily Worker staff to start a campaign to end the color line in Major League Baseball?
LR: Not initially. First I was overwhelmed with the job of establishing us as a bona fide sports section. It was only a matter of time after that when I said, "Look at this huge void here! No one is talking about this!" When Negro League teams came in, we showed from the beginning who the good Negro players were and gave something of their background and history. That took investigative reporting. The other papers just said, "The Kansas City Monarchs will play the Baltimore Giants at such and such a time tomorrow" with no mention that any of them could have played big league baseball or even minor league baseball. It’s amazing. You go back and you read the great newspapers in the thirties, you’ll find no editorials saying, "What’s going on here? This is America, land of the free and people with the wrong pigmentation of skin can’t play baseball?" Nothing like that. No challenges to the league, to the commissioner, to league presidents, no interviewing the managers, no talking about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson who were obviously of superstar caliber. So it was this tremendous vacuum waiting. Anybody who became Sports Editor of the Daily Worker would have gone into this. It was too obvious. And some of the white comrades who had never paid attention to sports before began saying, "Is this an all white sport?" People didn’t think about it. It was the culture of the times and it was accepted. We also developed a relationship with the Black Press and printed each other’s articles about the Negro League players and the color line which in those highly segregated times opened up new audiences for both of us.
DZ: How did the push to integrate the Major Leagues come off the sports’ page and turn it into an activist campaign?
LR: I spoke to the leaders of the YCL (the Young Communist League). They were enthusiastic about the sports page. We talked about circulating the paper. It just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, "Why don’t we go to the ballparks – to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds – with petitions?"
DZ: Did they ever encounter any hostility from fans when they went to the parks?
LR: No, people were mostly receptive. People would say, "Gee, I never thought of that." And then they’d say, "Yeah, I think if they’re good enough then they should have a chance." We wound up with at least a million and a half signatures that we delivered straight to the desk of [baseball commissioner] Judge Landis.
DZ: How did integrate covering the teams and the movement?
LR: I’ll tell you a story: In 1937 we were in the dressing room at Yankee Stadium and somebody asked a young Joe DiMaggio, "Joe, who’s the best pitcher you’ve faced?" And without hesitation young Joe said, "Satchel Paige." He didn’t say "Satchel Paige who ought to be in the big leagues," he just said Satchel Paige. So that was a huge headline in the next day’s Daily Worker sports page in the biggest type I had: "Paige best pitcher ever faced- DiMaggio." No other paper reported that, they didn’t go into this. If the other reporters would hand that in, their editor would say, "Come on, you’re not stirring this thing up." But we didn’t see it as a virtue that we were the only people reporting on this. We wanted to broaden this thing and end the damned ban.
DZ: Did you ever get in trouble with players when you would take those quotes and put them in big print on the sports’ page?
LR: I was sensitive to the players. I made sure they knew who they were talking to. If they wanted to be a little reticent with me, fine, but we were citizens of the press box and I carried the magic card, the Baseball Writers’ Association card. But the campaign evolved step by step and it became a many sided thing. The interviews were very meaningful when white players like Johnny Vander Meer or Bucky Walters, said "I don’t see why they shouldn’t play." That shot down the myth the owners would repeat that white players would never stand for it. It was a long haul, but it spread out among sports writers of conscience especially when the World War II began. Here were black guys dying for their country and they wouldn’t be eligible to play in the national past time. That sort of accelerated the whole thing. Every story we did had a purpose, and the Daily Worker was on the desk of every other newspaper. The Daily Worker had an influence far in excess of its circulation, partly because a lot of our readership was trade union people. When May Day came along, the Transport Workers Union, or Furriers District 65, would march with signs that said "End Jim Crow in Baseball."
DZ: When Robinson finally broke through in 1947, how was he treated?
LR: The grief that Jackie took the first two years when he pledged not to fight back or even to glare back, young people today can’t really grasp. Think of Tiger Woods. Let’s just suppose he’s walking along the fairway and the people in the stands are screaming racial epithets at him and vile things to the white players about him. He knows that some of the white players on the tour have banded together with a petition to bar him, and when he gets to the putting green somebody throws out a big black cat in front of him, which happened to Jackie in Philadelphia. You’ve got to imagine all that plus the physical thing. Jackie was hit by more pitches by far than anybody else in the league his rookie year. Enos Slaughter veered and came down on his heel when he was at first base. Lenny Marillo, I remember, slid into him and jumped on him again. They had immunity; they knew he wouldn’t fight back. So Jackie was suppressing his very being, his personality. In 1949, his third year, he could finally emerge as the person he really was. He was an articulate, aggressive ballplayer, a four-letter star at UCLA, tough and outspoken. White ballplayers with those qualities like Eddie Stanky and Leo Durocher, they’re called scrappers, the tough winners. As soon as Jackie emerged as an aggressive ballplayer, the Sporting News, the baseball bible at that time, called him "shrill and irritating." The double standard immediately made itself felt. Some people are thrust into roles in history that they didn’t seek or maybe even comprehend. Jackie was different. He was a fiercely intelligent man. He knew exactly what he was doing. Which is why this proud man, after taking this shit for two years, didn’t somewhere along the line say, "This is too much, the hell with it, I’m out of here." He knew his role and he accepted it. And the Black players who followed him knew what he meant too. Joe Morgan, the announcer and hall of fame second baseman, was on the field for an old-timers’ occasion at Yankee Stadium. Jackie was at that time gray and his eyesight was going. Joe had never met Jackie so he ran after him as he was being lead off the field and he came back and his wife asked him, "What did you tell him," and Joe said, "I just said thank you."
DZ: Jackie Robinson spoke critically of Paul Robeson in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. What are your reflections on that?
LR: He changed his mind about that in later years. I’m one of the few people who ever read the full transcript of what Jackie said in Washington. Only a small percentage of it was about Paul Robeson. He was asked if Robeson was right that Black soldiers would never fight against the Soviet Union. Jackie said in effect, "That’s silly and no one person can speak for all Negroes." But then Jackie went on to begin attacking segregation in the United States, and they were very uneasy with him on that. A few years later when he began to look back, to revisit his HUAC appearance, he told the sportswriter Roger Kahn, "If I had that to do all over again I would have never in a million years, knowing what I know now, gone down to the House Committee to speak anything against Paul Robeson." He said, "Sure we had our disagreements, but our agreements were much greater. We were both Black men in a racist society."
DZ: Were you and Robinson friendly?
LR: We got along professionally. I interviewed him often. [Dodgers General Manager] Branch Rickey was a sophisticated anti-communist, and he obviously passed down the word that Jackie should realize not to get too close to the Communist press. So what does "too close" mean? If I walked up to him at the batting cage before a game and said "Jackie, last night you hit that double off Warren Spahn" and he’d talk to me just like anyone. He wasn’t cordial with me like [African-American Hall of Fame Dodgers catcher] Roy Campanella was. I got a tip that he and Campanella were up at the Harlem Y, spending time with the kids there. So I went up there and had a wonderful interview with both of them. Sports writers sometimes say that Campanella and Robinson didn’t get along because Campanella wasn’t militant enough. That is such nonsense. Campanella knocked around the Negro Leagues, had to eat in the back of the restaurants and had to get on the bus without taking a shower and play in another game. He certainly knew what Jim Crow was.
DZ: In your book Press Box Red, you talk about the exhibition games the Robinson-era Dodgers played in the south. Do you think that had an effect on the civil rights movement?
LR: There was a game in Atlanta I describe in the book. It wound up with the Black fans being allowed in because they had overflowed the segregated stands, they had poured in from outlying districts to see the first integrated game in Georgia history. The Klan had said, "This must not happen." That night there was this tremendous sight of Robinson, [Dodgers African-American pitcher] Don Newcombe and Campanella coming out and the Black fans behind the ropes and in the stands standing and roaring their greeting. A large sector of whites were just sitting and booing. Then other white people, hesitantly at first, stood up and consciously differentiated themselves from the booers and clapped. This was an amazing spectacle. This was the Deep South many years before the words civil rights were known. So it had its impact. People used to say "never in Shreveport," "never in Mobile," "never in New Orleans" but it did and the Atlanta scene happened everywhere black and white took the field that year. I went on the first road trip with the Dodgers. I remember in Chicago amazing things used to happen in the stands. Like a white guy would say to a black guy like, "Hey! You’re rooting for the visiting team? You’re from Chicago aren’t you? You should root for the Cubs!" The black guy would say: "Hey! What are you asking me? You see this color? Our Cubs won’t let anybody with this kind of skin play, and you’re asking me to root against a team that broke the damned ban, and is mixed!" Roy Campanella, once said to me, "Without the Brooklyn Dodgers you don’t have Brown vs. Board of Education." I laughed, I thought he was joking but he was stubborn. He said, "All I know is we were the first ones on the trains, we were the first ones down south not to go around the back of the restaurant, first ones in the hotels." He said, "We were like the teachers of the whole thing."
DZ: How did this affect the white players on the Dodgers?
LO: [White Dodgers Outfielder] Pete Reiser, when he was seeing what was happening to Robinson said, "Well, democracy means that every is equal so that means we should treat everybody equal." Pee Wee Reese, the captain, he took it a layer deeper and said, "Well that’s true, but Jackie is catching special hell because he’s the only black player. Maybe we ought to do something to make it more equal." And that is an amazing thing to say 37 years before the words affirmative action were ever uttered. Reese was from Louisville, Kentucky and he was conflicted at first when he heard that they were having a black player, but he was a decent person, and the abstraction wears away after a while. (White Dodgers Outfielder] Carl Furillo is the most dramatic example I ever saw of how someone could change.
DZ: You witnessed Furillo’s transformation first hand, didn’t you?
LR: You have no idea what that meant to me, having heard him say "I ain’t gonna play with no niggers," initially. Then in 1955 when they finally beat the Yankees in the World Series and had a big celebration party in the old Brooklyn Hotel lobby, when Jackie and [his wife] Rachel came in, Furillo jumped out of his chair like he got an electric prod. He was the first one hugging Jackie, their cheeks pressed together, saying, "We did it! We did it!" You tell that to a kid today, they say, "What’s the big deal?" Today we see players in the NBA hugging, but then it was meaningful. That’s what sports can do. Historically when the ‘powers that be’ clamped the Jim Crow ban on baseball, which was by far the national past time by the turn of the century, and fought like hell to keep it there for another fifty years, the breaking down of these walls were one of the things they were worried about. It sounds to some people a bit stretchy, but they knew that baseball was that meaningful.
DZ: You were at the famous game when Reese put his arm around Jackie. That was such a historic moment. Were you shocked when you saw Reese do that?
LR: I was thrilled, but I wasn’t totally shocked because I had already seen Reese evolving as of that incident. It was just a wonderful thing to do. And Cincinnati fans were shouting such vile things and nobody was stopping them. But by the middle of Jackie’s second year in 1948, it stopped. You began to get the feeling that the racists were in the minority, and they may still be racist to the core but at least their mouth was shut! And you never heard that again. On an official level the racism continued. Before the 1950 season, Ford Frick who was now the president of the American League, issued a warning about sliding roughly into bases and he only mentioned one name in particular: Jackie Robinson. That’s what he went through, a double standard.
DZ: Please talk about Satchel Paige.
LR: Satchel Paige is an American tragedy. He was arguably the best pitcher this country has produced, or one of the top three, and in his prime he was playing in the Negro Leagues. Some people still say, "Well maybe he wanted to stay with his own." I shot that down with an interview I did with him in which he challenged Major League Baseball to give him a try-out. He was twenty nine at the time and I told him, "Satch, Dazzy Vance is in the Hall of Fame and he didn’t reach his peak until he was thirty-four." He said, "Okay, well I’ll surely be in there by then." Thirteen more years went by and he was a forty-two year old rookie. America’s gotten off the hook pretty lightly on this. Josh Gibson was the greatest catcher who ever put on a uniform. If you want to say Johnny Bench was the greatest catcher you ever saw, Gibson was at least as good as Bench defensively. And at bat he was nothing less than a right-handed hitting Babe Ruth. That’s how good he was. In any ballpark they played in they have places where Josh Gibson hit it out, and it measures 480 feet. That’s how good he was. He became embittered and was over the hill and began drinking. It came too late for him. That kind of tragedy was for him more than Satchel because Satchel at least got a chance to make a cameo appearance and show the world how good he would have been.
DZ: Did you ever get a chance to engage Satchel politically?
LR: I didn’t have to engage him. He was bitter and political without any help from me. He actually wanted me – the guy from the Daily Worker! – to do his biography but was talked out of it by his agent.
DZ: Would you have jumped at that?
LR: Oh yes, and I would have done a good job. Although these players were embittered, they had fun, they enjoyed it, and like any oppressed people they had their own spirit. That doesn’t mean that they wanted to be playing in Podunk, and that they didn’t want to be center stage of the national past time and making that kind of money. I am highlighting Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, but there were any number of players. [African-American Sportswriter] Wendell Smith estimated that the Homestead Grays, the Black team in Pittsburgh around 1939, had six players in particular of potential All-Star, Big League quality.
DZ: Last question. What are your reflections now on Jackie Robinson and his impact?
LR: I gave a speech in 1997 at a forum about the 50th anniversary of his debut. At this forum I said, "There are very few people of whom you can say with certainty that they made this a somewhat better country. Without doubt you can say that about Jackie Robinson." Then I said, and this brought me an ovation and was featured in the New York Times the next day, "His legacy was not, ‘Hooray, we did it,’ but ‘Buddy, there’s still unfinished work out there.’" He was a continuing militant, and that’s why the Dodgers never considered this brilliant baseball man, who would have made a wonderful manager or coach. It’s because he was outspoken and unafraid. That’s the kind of person he was. In fact the first time he was asked to play at an Old Timer’s Game at Yankee Stadium, he said "I must sorrowfully refuse until I see more progress being made off the playing field on the coaching lines and in the managerial departments." He made people uncomfortable. In fact it was that very quality which made him something special. He always made you feel that "Buddy, there’s still unfinished work out there."
DAVE ZIRIN is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post in Prince George’s County Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.