Twelve years ago, my mother sent me an article about the age 80 and older national tennis champion, a man named Lester Rodney. At first I thought her intent was a none-too-subtle hint for me to exercise (“If he can do it…”). But the article was in fact a piece about the elderly tennis champion’s past, when he was known as “Red” Rodney and improbably brought together sports and the politics of social justice. As sports editor of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily Worker, from 1936-1958, Lester was a top sports writer who led the first sustained campaign to integrate Major League Baseball. He was also one of the first writers to remark on a Negro League player named Jackie Robinson, and he was the last living sportswriter to cover the famous 1938 boxing match between The Brown Bomber Joe Louis and Hitler’s favorite Max Schmeling. And now he’s gone.
On December 22, Lester died at the age of 98. With him goes a living link to one of the most forgotten movements in US history: the Communist Party’s campaigning and protesting for racial justice twenty years before the civil rights movement, and the central role of the radical press in agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball. I remember reading his story and being shocked that I’d never heard of the man or the movement. When I became a sportswriter for a small town newspaper, I contacted Lester through an intermediary, Frank Fried, and we conducted a series of interviews that left me both educated and utterly charmed. There is a stereotype of the old embittered leftist, the ex-communist who, like Lester, was harassed by the McCarthyites and then left the party when the extent of Stalin’s crimes was revealed. But Lester was a man with a twinkle in his eye. When I told him I wanted to go around the country with him to tell his story, the then 93-year-old Lester declined and said, “Ah, to be 80 again.”
He had no regrets about his radical past. As he said to me,
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, I met someone selling a paper, the Daily Worker. 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.
It caught his eye though because it was the one part of the paper that left Lester disgusted. The Daily Worker lectured that sports were little more than crude brainwashing of the workers.
As Lester told me,
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.
Lester, who was a top athlete until he had to quit all teams when his family was financially ruined in 1929, jumped at the chance to be a part of the sports world. Armed with a trusty press pass, he was in the locker rooms, at the batting cages, and standing ringside. He was called the “Press Box Red.” But he didn’t just talk to players about X’s and O’s, especially when it came to the color line.
He said to me,
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…. 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.
Lester’s work in the sportswriting trenches complemented the activist campaign he launched off the field. Petitioners gathered 1.5 million signatures collected outside of stadiums to end the ban. Unions, where the CP had serious influence, marched with banners that read “End Jim Crow in Baseball.”
Lester demonstrated that the beauty of sport and the fight for social justice were not counterposed but could dance together with a wicked grace. As he was fond of saying, “Every story has a purpose.” The stories had purpose because Lester had purpose. The national pastime, forever changed by the Press Box Red. Rest in Peace, Lester.