View from Left Field: Interview with Lester Rodney


Lester Rodney was the sports editor of the Daily Worker between 1936 and 1958. His contributions to sports history and to the working-class movement is detailed in Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports by Irwin Silber (Temple University Press, 2003).

PA: How did you come to work for the Daily Worker?

LR: That was in 1936. I had become radicalized by the Depression, which wiped out our home and my father’s job. But I was not a Party member, and in fact I used to argue with Communists at NYU where I went at night while working Depression jobs in the daytime. Inevitably I encountered the Daily Worker on the campus.

In the 1930s on any college campus in New York, if somebody wasn’t a Communist, a socialist or a Trotskyist or some variation of radical, they were pretty much brain-dead. So I encountered the Daily Worker . I argued against it. I came from a totally different background, a Republican family actually. I looked at it and I saw in the Sunday Worker that they had a sports column and some articles. Being very much interested in sports, I read it and I thought it was pretty good, but a little heavy handed and there were traces of sectarianism. (That word wasn’t in my vocabulary then.)

My curiosity was piqued, and after a couple more issues, I decided to write a letter to the editor suggesting, as a young man who was not a Communist but who was a sports fan, that it lighten up. I thought that sports were something that working people were into, especially the new generation of people who read the paper. They shouldn’t shy away from, though it may be true that sports is used to divert workers from the realities of life and so on, that’s inevitable, the fact that sports is something that appeals to workers, trade unionists, radicals and so on.

So I wrote this letter to the Daily Worker , and I got a reply from the editor, Clarence Hathaway. And he invited me to come in and chat. I went in and he said, 'How would you like to do a few things with us?' Gratis of course. So I said, 'Sure.' This was early in 1936.

PA: What kind of stories did they cover before you joined the staff?

LR: I can’t remember exactly. Some of the stuff was fine, but there was a tone in there, a reminder that sports – I don’t remember if the phrase was used – was the 'opium of the masses.' It was that kind of thing. They were talking already about the fact that there were no African Americans in baseball, but let me put it this way: there was nothing in it that reflected a pure interest in the sports world. For an average reader, if someone were to go out canvassing with the Daily Worker , he would find no point of contact with that sports writing. Well, I shouldn’t say no point of contact. It was a kind of faltering, half-hearted attempt to get in on the new popular front concept and so on. I would say it tended to be heavy handed.

PA: What kinds of contributions did you make toward the DW becoming more expansive?

LR: The first thing I did was begin writing about sports per se. I established the fact that we were interested in covering the sports scene in its entirety, which included the things that were wrong with it. We told the readers that we would analyze the teams – why the Dodgers were in sixth place and so on. In other words we established the fact that this was a legitimate sports section, which I had to do, by the way, to get membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America, which enables you to go to the press box and talk to the players on the field.

So I did that in conjunction with what turned out to be the campaign to end discrimination in baseball. The difference was that in addition to stressing the amazing fact that our national pastime didn’t allow players with black skin to play, it also dealt with the players as they were. It didn’t treat them as auxiliaries to the plot. One of the objectives of the campaign was to talk to white players and managers about this to shoot down the myth that was promulgated that the white players would never stand for desegregation.

PA: Do you recall if white players knew that integrating baseball would raise the talent level?

LR: You could be a racist and concede that. There was no great consciousness about it by white players. The culture of the times accepted racism right down the line not just in sports. As I pointed out in Press Box Red, you could go back and look at the great newspapers in the 1930s, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, etc., and you’d look in vain to see any mention whatsoever of the fact that half way through the 20th century in the land of the free that Black players weren’t allowed in our 'national pastime.' There were no editorials about it. There were no questions to the magnates and the commissioner of baseball. There were no investigative articles about 'who are the Black players' or 'are there Black players good enough' and so on and so forth. So it was a wide open field for us.

My job in addition to doing that was to establish a regular sports page. In other words, I had to cover games and report on them in order to get credentials. From that base we could pursue the campaign.

PA: What were some other major stories you covered?

LR: In 1938 there was the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight which had a tremendous meaning beyond the event itself. Hitler was in the ascendancy and had sent a telegram to Schmeling saying 'Confident that you will defeat Louis.' The whole thing took on a political atmosphere. They practically hung the swastika on Schmeling’s jaw. So that certainly was something we covered thoroughly. I went to Joe Louis’ training camp. Richard Wright, the Black novelist who was a Communist at the time, asked me to take him along to meet Joe Louis, and I did that. That was a big thing for our paper, covering that fight in a way that nobody else covered it.

Initially, baseball was the big thing. Baseball at that time was the national pastime in truth much more than today when there are so many different interests in sports. There was no National Basketball Association then or professional football league of any account. Baseball was the center of attention of most young men particularly. So we covered the games just the same as the other sports writers but in addition we began to introduce these other questions. But separate. We didn’t write stories about how the Dodgers defeated the Giants 3-2 and so and so pitched, and then in the next sentence say, 'but where were the Black players?' We just ran sports stories, but separately in the same page we began raising the question of Black players.

PA: How did the paper propel the campaign for integration to its successful conclusion?

LR: In the 1930s, the Daily Worker had an influence far beyond its circulation. The main reason for that was that we had a lot of young trade unionists reading the Daily Worker and in the Party. That’s why when there was a May Day parade, we had baseball teams from the Furriers’ union, from the Transport Workers, from different unions holding up signs: End Jim Crow in Baseball. It was the fact that the Party was influential then in the CIO.

We stimulated a petition campaign wherein young Communists mostly and others went to the ballparks with petitions asking fans going in to sign a petition to admit Black ballplayers to professional baseball. That resulted in a million and a half signatures that landed on Judge Landis’ desk. There was a direct influence that stemmed from the Daily Worker campaign. The other thing was that we interviewed managers and players in conjunction with the Black press, which happily joined in with us. We exchanged stories, notably with Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, which was then the largest Black newspaper, but it was a weekly with a limited circulation, so they were happy to get their articles printed in the crucial New York market through us. We didn’t want it to be a Daily Worker exclusive. We wanted to end the ban. We were very happy as the war approached that people like Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out – not Franklin, Eleanor – and trade unions. The National Maritime Union was very good at that time.

PA: Did you continue to cover sports after you left the paper in the late 1950s?

LR: The Daily Worker was closing actually, that was in early 1958. I left and went to California. I never wrote sports again.

PA: Did you continue to follow sports?

LR: Sure. I didn’t drop interest in sports suddenly. I was voted by my peers an honorary lifetime membership in the Baseball Writers Association, which enables me even to this day to go into the press box of any baseball field in the country.

PA: Do you still do that?

LR: Sure.

PA: The big issue today in baseball is steroid use. Do you think it will have an impact after we’ve heard about all these players (like Mark McGwire) who have admitted to using or are suspected of using them?

LR: McGwire used a substance that isn’t quite the kind of thing they are talking about with steroids.

PA: It was an enhancement.

LR: It was an enhancement but it wasn’t illegal or banned by baseball so I don’t see how it could put an asterisk next to him. He didn’t defy the rules. There is a common feeling that Barry Bonds had a personal trainer who was involved with steroids. Yet there is the good old principle of innocent until proven guilty because there is no hard evidence. He denies it and says that he is willing to be tested at any time.

PA: Do you think it will negatively affect baseball’s image, because in the past few years some baseball players have set these new records that were deemed unachievable before?

LR: There is something to that. But you must also realize, and people who never played baseball may not realize this, that you can take steroids until the cows come home, but unless you have eye-hand coordination, you’re not going to get the bat on a 90 mile an hour fastball. You’ve got to be a hell of an athlete to begin with. You can’t say that Barry Bonds is an ordinary player who used steroids. He’s not ordinary. He’s a great athlete who may have enhanced his strength. He still has to time the ball and drive it.

PA: Can you comment on the role of the embargo against Cuba has on the level of talent in professional baseball in North America?

LR: Cuba has incubated a lot of great ball-players most of whom remain in Cuba. A few of them defected and gave an indication of the quality of baseball in Cuba. If there were sanity and the embargo were lifted, I’m sure Cuba would be happy to have Cuban nationals play in the big leagues as other countries do.

PA: Another major issue with the rise of the WNBA, women’s soccer, and the attempts to form women’s professional baseball teams is the question of gender and sports. Did this ever become a theme or an interest for sports writers in those days?

LR: I’m sorry to say that it didn’t. We were better than the other papers on it, but we lagged behind on that question. We should have campaigned, not to have women in the big leagues, that would have been physically impossible, but to have equal facilities in college and to cover women’s events in the sports section though they weren’t as visible as they are today. The answer is we reflected the Party’s failure on that. We could have done more in the sports section about that, even though it was before the day of organized women’s sports teams and millions of girls playing soccer and so on.

The visibility of women in sports impacts on the self-esteem of young girls. So it has a social impact immediately. It reinforces their rights in the workplace even. You can’t argue that girls can’t do this or girls can’t do that. Girls can do almost anything. So in that sense it is the emergence of women’s athletics, even with all of the commercialized sins that begin to appear, after all this is taking place within a capitalist system. Women’s sports are exploited too as men’s sports are. Still, the very fact of the emergence of women as athletes, I think, plays a positive role in the never-ending fight for equality.

PA: The big story in that regard is in professional golf.

LR: The Masters. I salute Martha Burk. She’s changing her tactics now instead of just going down there and confronting them – they just shoved her off to the side anyhow. She investigated all the companies that subsidize the Masters. She has prepared questionnaires for them about their job process with women and so forth. She’s going to shine the light on them and maybe make them worry a little. That’s very good.

Somebody could justly argue that very few women golfers can compete with men golfers. And that’s just true, but still there are women who are very close and there are a few examples of that. I would rather see the immediate emphasis be on the college level, for instance, facilities are equal and teaching are equal for the golf teams and encourage women from the ground up to get in their and improve their game. That’s what happened in basketball. There was a successful fight to apportion equal money to women’s sports. That has redounded in the emergence of women’s basketball, which is an amazing spectacle. They play really well. But the sportswriters say, 'Oh, but they could never play in the NBA.' Those are the same sportswriters who couldn’t keep up with them. The gap tends to close. The men remain as great as they are, and the women get better all the time. We’ve seen that in swimming where the women have come quite close to men.

PA: As with the campaign to integrate baseball in the 1940s, do you regard professional male golfers as having a responsibility to say something?

LR: Absolutely. I would like to see Tiger Woods speak out and the other golfers of course. I wouldn’t just focus on him. Golf is the most socially stratified of all the sports. It’s not like baseball or basketball or football. That’s why Hootie [William 'Hootie' Johnson, chair of the Augusta club where the Masters is held] gets away with this. The history of golf is of privacy, of clubs, of wealth. That’s not true of the street sports: baseball, football, basketball, soccer.

PA: Doesn’t the suggestion that Tiger Woods has a special responsibility leave the other golfers off the hook?

LR: There’s two things to that. You’d like all the golfers to speak out about not excluding women. It’s unfair to single out the Black golfer in that respect. It’s a gender thing in golf. On the other hand, Tiger Woods, who should know something about what discrimination is in this world and being the champ and as great as he is, you could almost say that he could afford to speak out. He’s not going to destroy his career. I’d sure like to see him speak out. That’s all I can say about that.

PA: Earlier you said that the way you regarded the Daily Worker was as heavy handed. Do you…

LR: Well that’s not the total way I regarded the Daily Worker. It began to make connections with me on the social scene. I was a child of the Depression. I graduated high school in 1929 right in the teeth of the Wall Street crash. My father lost his job and had a stroke and died prematurely. I appreciated the Daily Worker even though I wished it would be better.

PA: I guess what I’m driving at is the role of sports coverage itself has in appealing to a working-class and mass audience and its continuing responsibility to speak about social issues.

LR: In that period especially it was perfectly legitimate to challenge players on the question of discrimination in their game, which we managed to do having established that we really covered baseball and weren’t just using it as a pretext for the campaign.

PA: Do you see anything that equals that now?

LR: No I don’t see anything of equal intensity, as outrageous, or as amazingly unjust as the ban against Black players. It was criminal. Look at Barry Bonds. Forget about the steroids. Just look at the super athlete that he is. Imagine that he couldn’t play on big league teams. I tell this to young people. They gasp, 'They couldn’t do that.' But they did do that. They kept Josh Gibson, the greatest catcher who ever played, from laying in big league baseball. It was a crime. There’s nothing quite like that today. It disenfranchised hundreds of American athletes. It was as if there was a ban on great violinists from coming to Carnegie Hall. It was unthinkable. That’s why we were able to win such a lot of support.

PA: The flip side is, is there a sports news venue that does that same kind of work that Daily Worker did?

LR: There’s no periodical that I know of that does except the radical press occasionally. There are organizations now. Richard Lapchick, his father was Joe Lapchick at St. John’s University then of the New York Knicks, who brought in a Black player, has an institute in Central Florida that monitors discrimination of all kinds and publicizes it. So there’s that. Of course another major difference between now and the 1930s is that the sportswriters themselves are free to write about things that are wrong. In those days sportswriters wouldn’t even think about handing in a story about discrimination. They wouldn’t let them.

The best example of that was in 1937. Joe DiMaggio was a Yankee for a year and a half. I was in the Yankee clubhouse and somebody, not me, somebody asked him, 'Joe who’s the best pitcher you ever faced?' – thinking in terms of big league pitchers. Joe without any hesitation said Satchel Paige. He’d played in post season exhibition games against the Negro league players led by Satchel Paige, so he knew how good he was. He didn’t say Satchel Paige who should be in the big leagues…He just said it matter-of-factly. But in saying that he still knew that they were barred. So the next day, the Daily Worker had a tremendous headline: Paige the Greatest I Have Faced – DiMaggio. Reporters from every other major paper were in that dressing room with me and not a word appeared in any of those papers.

Word got around finally, but its impact was lessened by the fact that the other papers didn’t run it. If the Daily News had run that headline, it would have hastened the campaign. This doesn’t mean that the sportswriters were all racists. They worked for a living and they knew that you didn’t report such things in their papers. They knew what their papers were at that time. The papers didn’t deal with discrimination in those years. It was self-censorship.