This is about a man who was on the right side of history. Lester Rodney, who died in late December at 98, was neither widely read nor much celebrated during 21 years as a New York sports editor and baseball reporter. He was a member of the American Communist Party when such an association was decidedly frowned upon, essentially disappeared to Southern California in the late 1950s and wasn't recognized for his greatest contribution to society until he was 86 years old.
But eventually, word got out: At a 1997 symposium organized by LIU history professor Joe Dorinson to mark the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line in baseball, Rodney at last was given his due as the first white journalist in the country - and the only newspaperman in New York - to agitate for the inclusion of black players in organized baseball.
"I felt that was probably the finest contribution I made, to rescue Lester from relative obscurity," Dorinson said recently. "And thanks to Jules Tygiel [the San Francisco-based Robinson expert who also is recently deceased], Lester soon was on public radio and television and attended other symposia in California. People learned that Rodney had been in the forefront. His column was a beacon for sports-minded people who wanted changes in American society."
Born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, Rodney was 25 when he talked the editor of the Communist Party's Daily Worker into starting a sports section - with himself as sports editor and columnist - in 1936. He spent his entire career at the paper not only "being race-conscious," Dorinson said, "but eager to promote outsiders."
Rodney made the Daily Worker the first white paper to reprint articles that appeared in black publications pushing for integration in baseball. He himself was the first white columnist to mention Robinson as a worthy major-league prospect.
He subsequently joined the Communist Party (which he left in the 1950s), which mattered more to the public at large than to the sports world. "To ballplayers," said former Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs, who befriended Rodney in the early 1950s and remained in touch with him the rest of Rodney's life, "he was a guy who knew baseball; they related to him as a baseball writer."
At the 1997 symposium, Rodney recalled thoroughly cordial relations with players "because I was a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America." But he slyly told of the time Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese brought him to greet reliever Erv Palica, who had just been sent to the mound on five consecutive days. "Daily worker," Reese motioned to Palica, "meet Daily Worker."
Dorinson remembered reading Rodney as a child. "I grew up a Red-diaper baby," Dorinson said, "which is a euphemism for having Communist parents. There were two reasons for being a Communist then: If you were working class or unemployed, you knew the Communists were calling for social security and workmen's compensation. Or if you were Jewish and worried about your relatives in Europe, you felt the Communists were the only ones standing up to Hitler in Europe."
Still, on the whole, Rodney's civil rights influence was not based on enormous readership. "People didn't read the Daily Worker," said Isaacs, himself employed at the left-wing Daily Compass in the early '50s. "Only Communists and FBI men read it. When the paper had about 12 readers at the end, maybe eight were from the FBI."
Other reporters were aware, though, of Rodney's righteous stances. In a Rodney tribute he submitted to The Nation magazine in January, Isaacs noted that often-cranky Daily News columnist Dick Young assured Rodney that he hated all "Commies" but that he nevertheless liked Rodney, and once fed him information that Young knew the Daily News would not print.
Rodney, Isaacs recalled, was the only newspaperman to react when LIU basketball coach Claire Bee, at a writers' luncheon, spoke of the racism his players faced in the Southwest. Rodney produced a column on the matter the next day.
Years before, Rodney wrote that Joe DiMaggio told him the toughest pitcher he ever faced was Negro League star Satchel Paige, during an exhibition game long before Robinson's arrival. Rodney not only campaigned in print but also wrote letters to then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis about Robinson and other black potential major-leaguers.
Yet when Robinson at last was signed to a Dodgers contract, Isaacs said, Branch Rickey "never wanted to give the Daily Worker credit. He gave all the credit to the Negro press. In fact, it was both that had pushed for integration."
To Dorinson, "the irony is that here is the notion of sports as an opiate of the people, an escape. Rodney and his readers felt sports was a vehicle for integration and social change, and there was no better example of that than the Jackie Robinson breakthrough. He had sounded the clarion call: Why not quality black players?"
At the 1997 LIU symposium, Rodney - who spent his later years as a religion editor and top age-group tennis player - said, "The magic of Jackie was that he changed people." But what finally had become clear was the magic of Lester Rodney.