A reporter's role in breaking baseball's color barrier
Sportswriter Lester Rodney urged the integration of black ballplayers.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — On Sunday, Aug. 16, 1936, Lester Rodney, the sports editor of the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, called for the end of the color line in baseball. Mr. Rodney wrote that black ballplayers would improve the quality of play in the major leagues. He urged fans to pressure team owners to make baseball the national game it purported to be. "You pay the prices. Demand better ball," Rodney wrote. "Demand Americanism in baseball."
This was the beginning of the New York City-based newspaper's decade-long campaign to integrate baseball. Once Rodney began writing about the issue, he said he realized that the story of baseball's color line was the newspaper's – by default. "It was wide open. No one was covering it," he said. "We were the only nonblack newspaper writing about it for a long time."
Most American sportswriters participated in a conspiracy of silence on the issue of the color line in baseball. J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, once wrote that there "was no good" to come from raising the race issue.
When mainstream sportswriters mentioned the great black pitcher Satchel Paige, which they rarely did, they portrayed him in racist stereotype, as a hard-throwing Stepin Fetchit. Rodney, however, interviewed Mr. Paige at length, including a challenge by Paige that he could beat any all-star team of white big leaguers. No other daily mentioned the challenge. After his rookie year, New York Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio told New York sportswriters that Paige, whom he had faced in an off-season exhibition, was the best pitcher he had ever played against. Only Rodney reported the DiMaggio statement.
The Baseball Writers Association, like the game it covered, excluded black sportswriters. Rodney and the other Worker sportswriters, because they were white, were eligible. Rodney's membership card gave him access to locker rooms, dugouts, press boxes, and the playing fields.
Rodney remembered sympathetic sportswriters seeking him out with stories they could not report. "I can't tell you how many times they would say, 'Here's a little something. I can't use it, but I'd love to see it in print.' "
The Worker broke the 1942 story that Chicago White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes said he'd love to sign Jackie Robinson but couldn't because of the color line. Rodney quoted Leo Durocher, then the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, as saying he would sign blacks if he were not restricted from doing so by team owners. The Worker urged the Pittsburgh Pirates to agree to try out three black ballplayers. But the team, under pressure from the baseball establishment, reneged.
Today it is difficult to understand the vastness of racism or the popularity of communism in America. These two would converge on the Daily Worker's pages not just to make baseball more democratic but also to further civil rights in American society.
In recent years, black sportswriters Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American have been duly recognized for their involvement in ending segregated baseball by their induction into the J.G. Taylor Spink sportswriting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ironically, Mr. Spink was a staunch segregationist, and the Baseball Writers Association of America, which selected Messrs. Smith and Lacy, barred black sportswriters. The Baseball Writers Association was correct in acknowledging Smith and Lacy; now it should do the same for Rodney.
Seventy years after he began his crusade to integrate baseball, Rodney, who's now in his mid-90s, should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rodney and his newspaper wrote the history of the campaign to integrate baseball, as it happened. If you're not aware of this, it's not Rodney's fault. The mainstream press, both then and now, too often marginalizes or outright ignores the shadows of history, giving us a sanitized and thus distorted sense of what happened. But neglected history is still history. Baseball's most important story is the story of integration. Rodney recorded that story better than anyone. Politics aside, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
• Chris Lamb is an associate professor of Media Studies at the College of Charleston. He is the author of "Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training." His next book, "Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Campaign to Integrate Baseball," will be published next year by the University of Nebraska Press.