Press Box Red: The story of Lester Rodney, the Communist who helped break the color line in American sports by Irwin Silber. Forward by Jules Tygiel. Temple University Press, 2003. Illustrated, softcover, 236 pp., $19.95
“Press Box Red” tells the story of Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Daily Worker, in developing and leading the campaign to break the color line in American sports. The book offers us insight into the history of our country, the Communist Party USA, and our national pastime.
Author Irwin Silber says he was able to convince a reluctant Rodney that his story had to be told. Silber conducted hours of interviews which complemented his own research. The People’s Weekly World provided rare photos and page proofs of Rodney’s articles from Daily Worker archives. The author weaves it all together seamlessly, forming a coherent narrative of Rodney’s life and of the campaign to integrate baseball.
The two recently spoke to an audience at Local 1199’s Bread and Roses Gallery in New York City – elaborating on stories from the book, answering questions from the audience, teasing one another, and signing autographs! At 92, Rodney remains as sharp as a line drive, and as lively as his days at the Daily Worker, which began in 1936 and lasted until 1958.
A new position on sports
“Press Box Red” begins with the story of how Rodney came to write for the Daily Worker even before he considered himself a Communist. Silber notes that in the Popular Front era of the 1930s, the Daily Worker changed its format in order to have a broader, more mainstream appeal. The paper’s Sunday edition began to include comics, cultural events, history, fiction, recipes and two full pages devoted to sports.
This was a dramatic shift from two years previous, when the paper editorialized that “American workers are greatly interested in professional sports, far too much, in fact, for their own class interest.” In August of 1935, Mike Gold, a Daily Worker columnist, author of “Jews Without Money,” called this hostility to sports “snobbism.”
Rodney’s hand would help to effect this shift. Although not yet a Communist, he read the paper and in the fall of 1936 he wrote a letter to the editors “pointing out some ways they could improve their sports stuff.” This led to a meeting where Rodney told an editor that “they needed a change in attitude.” It was wrong to paint “a picture of professional athletes being wage slaves with no joy, no élan. … Of course there’s exploitation, but … the professional baseball player still swells with joy when his team wins. They hug each other. That’s not put on. That’s not fake.”
The growth of a sportswriter
“I felt they needed to see the fun side of sports and the beauty, too,” says Rodney. He knew this side intimately from his days as a boy in Brooklyn, where he played sandlot baseball, ran track in high school, and even began his sports reporting career at his high school newspaper. For his first article for his high school paper, Rodney interviewed the school’s basketball coach about their chances for the coming season. The coach handed him a gem of a quote. “Well,” he said, “we’re small, but we’re slow.” Rodney was hooked on sportswriting.
He joined the Daily Worker staff in 1936. “The Daily Worker has begun a sports section,” liberal columnist Heywood Broun wrote in 1936. “It will be interesting to observe what happens,” he continued, “because, so far as I know, you can’t class-angle a box score.”
As we learn from Silber, this wasn’t Rodney’s main intent, although he firmly believed that you could strike a balance between good sports reporting and social criticism. He built solid relationships with many baseball players – in both the Major League and the Negro Leagues. Rodney even secured a column for the Daily Worker from famous Yankees third-baseman Red Rolfe during the 1937 World Series in which the Yankees beat the New York Giants. Rolfe, like many players at the time, respected the vast knowledge of sports that Rodney possessed, and the fact that he did not try to grind “an ideological ax” with them.
Many of these encounters are quite humorous, as when Rodney and Leo Durocher, the manager of the Dodgers, were talking strategy after an important game. “Suddenly,” Rodney recalls, “Leo leans over to me ,grabs my arm, and says, ‘You know, Rodney, for a f———g Communist, you sure know your baseball.’”
Crossing the line
Rodney built cordial relations with other sports reporters. While a few red-baited him, many others confided that they wished they had the freedom to do what he did; ultimately, it was editors and owners that exercised their control over what was news. From The New York Times to The Sporting News, there was a clear line that reporters were expected to maintain: the color line.
Rodney remembers that in 1937, one reporter asked Joe DiMaggio “who was the best pitcher he ever faced. Nobody was thinking of the Black players. DiMaggio stuns everybody by saying without hesitation, ‘Satchel Paige.’ He had played against Satch in a few postseason exhibition games. … Joe didn’t make a big deal out of it … [but] he answered the question honestly and he had no compunctions about it. He knew Paige was Black and that Blacks were banned when he said that. We had a huge headline the next day. The other papers never mentioned it.”
This straight-up reporting was a part of a coordinated Daily Worker campaign to integrate American sports. The campaign was run not simply on the grounds of racial justice; it also was aimed at fans who cared about improving the quality of major league play. (After all, it was Jesse Owens and other Black Americans who helped stun Hitler’s elite Aryan athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.)
In the book, Rodney explains their strategy:
“First was to simply raise hell about the color ban and get it into the public consciousness.
“Second, we set out to popularize the Black stars and document that they could compete on the Big League level.
“Third, shoot down the notion that the white players and managers wouldn’t stand for it by directly putting the question to them.
“Fourth, we immediately put the league presidents and the commissioner on the spot by challenging them to say whether there was an official ban, which they denied, of course.
“But maybe the most important was to generate fan participation in the campaign.”
Over the course of two excellent chapters, “Press Box Red” documents each of these integrated elements. We learn that Young Communist League members played a key role in circulating petitions to dismantle the ban, securing with the help of many allies more than 2 million signatures nationwide.
Young comrades and sports fans also brought skilled Black players to major league tryouts to debunk the false argument that the Black players just were not good enough. Silber really lets Lester Rodney speak for himself with Q&A interviews, so that we really feel the full wrath of his outrage at this injustice. We are also treated to a look at the character of segregationist Major League Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball “czar” – and to a public upbraiding he was given by Paul Robeson, echoing the popular pressure that the Daily Worker brought to bear on him.
After more than 10 years, the campaign was finally successful: Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. We also learn about impact that desegregation in baseball has on the overall movement against racism. Roy Campanella, the star Black catcher for the Dodgers, told Rodney that baseball’s integration paved the way for the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing “separate but equal” schools in 1954. The Daily Worker’s sports page headline read “Baseball Had Something To Do With That 9-0 Score.”
The really Popular Front
The book also demonstrates the impact that Rodney had in helping the Party and the YCL overcome sectarianism and gain in political maturity. They were able to rupture “the caricature of Communists as joyless people who don’t live a full life, don’t like sports, don’t like movies.” Rodney continues: “I’m not boasting. It’s a fact that the sports section became the most popular part of the Daily Worker. I felt it. It vibrated back to me. I was the only one at the Daily Worker who regularly got tons of mail.”
People love sports. We love watching them, studying them, and competing in them. During this year’s World Series – as in every year – I was struck by the spontaneous celebration of the victorious Florida Marlins after the last out in the ninth inning. The dancing, the hugging, the jumping, the screaming, the crying, the laughing.
There are political lessons to be learned from these moments of elation. You can see the same look on the faces of workers who have just won their first union election; I think immediately of the victory scene in “At the River I Stand,” the film about the ultimately successful Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968.
“The idea of people coming together, blending their skills into a team, getting the best out of each other – and winning. That’s a remarkable feeling,” Rodney says. “That’s a wonderful human thing. And you must never forget that.”
Irwin Silber’s “Press Box Red” ensures that we never will.
The author can be reached at
Desegregating the national pastime
By Tim Wheeler
I met former Daily Worker sports editor, Lester Rodney, at a housewarming in Rossmoor, the retiree village in Walnut Creek, Calif., last September. He and Irwin Silber were autographing copies of “Press Box Red,” Silber’s wonderful book about the role of Rodney and the Daily Worker in the struggle to end segregation in major league baseball. Rodney, a self-effacing man, laughed about being “rediscovered” by the media in 1997 during the 50th anniversary celebrations of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. “These TV producers started looking around for someone who was alive when it happened and they found me. They would ask me: Did you know Jackie Robinson? Did you know Mickey Mantle?”
I interrupted him: “Well … Did you?” He chuckled, “Of course!”
In the chapter, “Jim Crow Must Go,” Silber reports that the struggle began in 1936 when the Daily Worker announced a forthcoming series by Rodney under the headline: “Outlawed by Baseball! The Crime of the Big Leagues.”
A petition campaign demanding an end to Jim Crow was launched in 1939 by the Communist Party USA and Young Communist League directed at Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. “We had a goal of 100,000 signatures that year and we went way beyond it. That’s part of the almost 2 million signatures that wound up on Landis’ desk,” Rodney says. YCLers gathered those signatures outside major league and Negro league ballparks. Rodney also hails the role of the labor movement, with many CIO unions, especially the left-led National Maritime Union, marching in May Day parades with signs denouncing Jim Crow in baseball.
Pete Cacchione and Ben Davis, Communist members of the New York City Council, introduced resolutions to end baseball Jim Crow. Paul Robeson’s speech to a meeting of the Baseball Commissioners is quoted: “The time has come that you must change your attitude toward Negroes,” the great All-American said. “I urge you to decide favorably on this request and that action be taken this very season.” That was in 1942.
Not mentioned in this well-documented book is the role of William L. Patterson, founder of the Civil Rights Congress, who describes in his autobiography, “The Man Who Cried Genocide,” meetings with William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs to urge him to support baseball integration. Patterson played a role in arranging the one-hour meeting between Robeson and Landis that Silber discusses in his book.
Allen Barra, Wall Street Journal sports writer, in a review in the Los Angeles Times called Silber’s book “a terrific read.” And yes it is! The staff of the People’s Weekly World gave a helping hand, acknowledged with gratitude by the author. We tracked down and scanned virtually all the Daily Worker pages, photos and cartoons that illustrate the book.