Lester Rodney, Early Voice in Fight Against Racism in Sports, Dies at 98
By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Lester Rodney, who occupied an unlikely niche in journalism — sports
editor of the American Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker — and used that platform to wage an early battle against baseball’s color barrier, died Sunday in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 98.
His death was announced by his family.
Even in The Daily Worker’s heyday, during the Depression, the working
classes the newspaper championed were hardly lining up at newsstands for its box scores. But the paper, published in New York City, did have a sports section, run by Mr. Rodney, who was a card-carrying member, in the parlance of his day, of both the Communist Party USA and the Baseball Writers Association of America.
In the 1930s and early ’40s, Mr. Rodney, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Europe, became an outspoken voice among sportswriters, apart from the black press, in condemning racial discrimination in professional sports.
Running a six-day-a-week Daily Worker sports section that he introduced in 1936, more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, Mr. Rodney pressured the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the major league club owners to end baseball’s racial barrier.
His columns cited the exploits of stars of the Negro leagues like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and he quoted major league players
and managers praising the talents of black players to buttress his argument that they offered a vast talent pool. He publicized Communist-led petition drives aimed at ending the majors’ exclusion of blacks.
“Negro soldiers and sailors are among those beloved heroes of the
American people who have already died for the preservation of this
country and everything this country stands for — yes, including the
great game of baseball,” Mr. Rodney wrote in an open letter to Landis
published in The Daily Worker in May 1942. “You, the self-proclaimed
‘Czar’ of baseball, are the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our
National Pastime. You are the one refusing to say the word which would do more to justify baseball’s existence in this year of war than any other single thing.”
In recounting the mounting pressures baseball faced to end its color
barrier, Arnold Rampersad wrote in his 1997 biography “Jackie Robinson”
that “the most vigorous efforts came from the Communist press.”
Mr. Rampersad told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 that Mr. Rodney “was forgotten because he was a Communist.”
“But,” he added, “if Robinson was perceived by civil rights workers —
and especially by Martin Luther King — as a historical turning point,
anybody who facilitated the emergence of Jackie Robinson should be seen as one of the heroes of race integration.”
In his 1983 book “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His
Legacy,” Jules Tygiel wrote that The Daily Worker and Mr. Rodney
“unrelentingly attacked the baseball establishment.”
Mr. Tygiel said that “the success of the Communists in forcing the issue
before the American public far outweighed the negative ramifications of
Lester Rodney grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, became a Dodger fan, covered sports for the New Utrecht High School newspaper, and played basketball and ran track. His father was a staunch Republican who had owned a silk factory but was ruined financially by the 1929 stock market crash.
While Mr. Rodney was attending night school at New York University in
the mid-1930s, a young Communist Party recruiter handed him a copy of The Daily Worker. He found its limited sports coverage to be little more than a dull representation of the Communist line, viewing athletic
competition as a means of appeasing the oppressed masses. So he wrote a letter to the paper’s editor telling him to lighten up.
The editor invited him in for a chat and asked him to contribute sports
articles. Mr. Rodney was soon hired as the paper’s first sports editor,
at a time when the Communist Party was seeking to broaden its appeal in the United States by reflecting the interests of working-class men and women. Mr. Rodney joined the party because Daily Worker staff members were expected to do so.
“I never thought of myself as a ‘Communist sportswriter,’ ” Mr. Rodney
told Irwin Silber for his 2003 biography “Press Box Red.” As he put it:
“I was a sportswriter who happened to be writing for a Communist
newspaper. By the time The Daily Worker was something the players might react to negatively, they knew me as a sportswriter and a person.”
After Army service in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Rodney
returned to The Daily Worker. He resigned from the Communist Party in
January 1958 when the paper suspended publication, its top editors
having refused to continue unwavering acceptance of the Soviet Communist Party line. (The American party later resumed putting out a newspaper under different names, the latest being The People’s Weekly World.)
Mr. Rodney moved to California and, after several years in advertising
work, became the religion editor of The Long Beach Independent
Press-Telegram. He retired in 1975.
He is survived by his daughter, Amy Rodney, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; his
son, Ray, of Fairfax, Calif.; a granddaughter, Jessie Amanda Rodney
LaGoy; and his companion, Mary Harvey. His wife, Clare, died in 2004.
Mr. Rodney looked back with pride on his long campaign against racism in sports. But he also displayed a wry side, as when he told Mr. Silber
about his first days as the Daily Worker sports editor, just before the
1936 World Series between the Yankees and the New York Giants:
“I remember my first headline: ‘Giant Power Threatens Yankees,’ in
60-point railroad Gothic caps. I also remember thinking what fun it
would have been if Cincinnati had won the National League pennant andthe headline said, ‘Reds Power Threatens Yankees.’ ”