Press Box Red

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The little-known story of the battle to integrate professional baseball is the subject of PRESS BOX RED, a book about a gutsy, controversial sportswriter named Lester Rodney. Long before Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier by signing up Jackie Robinson, Rodney had written dozens of articles calling on major-league baseball to change its Jim Crow policy. But in most of the books, plays and movies about Rickey/Robinson, there is no mention of his name. Reason? He wrote for a communist newspaper, The Daily Worker.

Shock horror! A commie sportswriter fighting for democracy and fair play in the USA! How could that be? Weren’t Reds supposed to be our enemies, part of an evil empire bent on destroying our way of life? Instead of telling the truth about Rodney, the baseball world chose to pretend that he didn’t exist. His name was left out of most histories of major-league baseball’s struggle to overcome its segregated past.

But with the publication of PRESS BOX RED, Rodney has finally been given his due. As Jules Tygiel finally admitted in ‘Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,’”The American Communist party played a major role in elevating the issue of baseball’s racial policies to the level of public consciousness...The Daily Worker, led by its sports editor, Lester Rodney, unrelentingly attacked the baseball establishment. Negro League games were headlined as ‘Chance to See Great Jim Crow Stars.’ Editorials attacked ‘every rotten Jim Crow excuse and alibi offered by the magnates for this flagrant discrimination.’”

In 1936, when Rodney, a 24-year-old NYU graduate (and non-communist), first joined The Daily Worker, the paper was almost mainstream. As Irwin Silber, author of PRESS BOX RED states, “New York at the time was awash in radical newspapers and left-wing pamphlets. Despite three years of FDR’s New Deal, the Great Depression remained a somber reality for the country at large, and there was no shortage of Communists, socialists, Trotskyites, anarchists, and sundry radicals to hawk newspapers and hand out leaflets explaining what they believed were the causes of America’s economic woes and offering revolutionary solutions.”

Prior to 1936 The Daily Worker carried only the occasional sports feature, but Rodney changed all that. Once he began writing for the paper “his love for and knowledge of sports affected everyone on the staff, not only those who wrote sports.” Soon he was offered a daily page and the freedom to write what he pleased.

“We were always an undermanned newspaper,” Rodney confided to Silber. “I had an enormous load as a sportswriter. I could have spent all my days just filling the page without going to cover anything. But I felt impelled to show up at games. I had to get credentials. And to get fresh material on the page, firsthand stuff, interviews. There were times when I felt I had to be the hardest-working sportswriter in the United States.”

Rodney, who had played three sports as a kid, covered not only baseball but boxing, football and basketball. He’d write mostly “straight” stories with no political slant: “You wouldn’t know they were in the Daily Worker.” But when it came to breaking the color line in baseball, he took a firm ideological stand. In his first editorial, which ran under the front-page banner “Fans Ask End of Jim Crow Baseball,” Rodney blasted “the un-American and invisible barrier of racial prejudice that keeps Negro ballplayers on the sidelines. Fans, it’s up to you. Tell the big league magnates that you’re tired of the poor pitching in the American League. You want to see Satchel Paige out there on the mound. You’re tired of a flop team in Boston, of the silly Brooklyn Dodgers, of the inept Philadelphia Phillies and the semi-pro Athletics...Demand better ball...Demand Americanism in baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white. Demand the end of Jim Crow baseball!”

For the next twenty years, Rodney (who eventually did join the Communist Party) kept up the attack. With the help of the black newspapers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier), and such left-wing unions as the CIO, the Fur Workers Union and the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Rodney continued to champion the cause of the Negro baseball player. Opposed not only by the League itself but by many racist club-owners, managers, players and fellow-sportswriters–-some of whom threatened him with violence-- Rodney persevered and was finally able to celebrate when Branch Rickey, on Oct. 24, 1945, signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team. A few months later, Rickey sent Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to the Dodgers’ AA Nashua (New Hampshire) club. The complete integration of baseball followed over the next two decades.

The McCarthy era’s right-wing politics helped cover up the role the Daily Worker had played in the democratization of major-league baseball. PRESS BOX RED not only sets the record straight but pays long-overdue tribute to Lester Rodney, one of the best and most courageous sports writers this country has ever known.

(Temple University Press,