Larry Tye

Baseball’s equality barker

By Larry Tye
December 29, 2009

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HE WAS not a welcome ally to many in America’s civil rights movement of the early 1900s, but none could deny the attention-getting power of Lester Rodney, the hot-blooded young sports editor of the paper published by the Communist Party USA.

The Daily Worker had always had in its crosshairs that era’s Jim Crow system of racial segregation, but never the sports scene. It was not until the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, in 1935, that Joseph Stalin and his minions decided that each national party should appeal to its masses through local traditions.

In America that meant baseball. The Daily Worker hired as its first sports editor Rodney, a 25-year-old New York University night student from Brooklyn who knew as little about socialism as he did about journalism. Yet Rodney loved the national pastime, and he made ending Major League Baseball’s ban on blacks his passion for more than a decade. His opening salvo set a tone that was part Karl Marx, part Babe Ruth. “Tell the big league magnates that you’re sick of the poor pitching in the American League. You want to see Satchel Paige out there on the mound,’’ Rodney wrote in an unsigned editorial in 1936. “Demand Americanism in baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white. Demand the end of Jim Crow baseball.’’

Rodney, who died Dec. 20 at the age of 98, understood that fireballer Leroy “Satchel’’ Paige, slugger Josh Gibson, and other stars of the Negro Leagues had proven they were the equals of the all-white major leaguers. For years, a cadre of crusading sportswriters had covered as many interracial barnstorming tours and Negro League games as their editors allowed, dropping in lines whenever they could pointing out the skill of black players and the stupidity of keeping them out of the majors.

But Rodney was one of the few to take on segregation point-blank. He put big league players and managers on the record on race, getting Leo Durocher of the Brooklyn Dodgers in trouble for saying he would have no problem signing a black if it boosted his team. He linked The Daily Worker’s campaign for racial justice to World War II - asking how blacks who were dying overseas to defend freedom could be denied it back home on the baseball diamond, and proposing that Negro Leaguers fill the glaring holes left by white stars serving in the Army and Navy. He even swapped stories with sports columnists at all-black newspapers.

Rodney also pressed Paige, the Negro Leagues’ most celebrated player, to condemn the separate and inequitable baseball structure that had made him a superstar and a rich man. It was asking for something few if any other players were doing, and certainly none with Paige’s following. This was in 1937, before there was a formal civil rights movement but when there were all-too-real lynchings of black men. It was asking a lot - and Rodney was so convincing that Paige obliged.

Under Rodney’s banner headline “Paige Asks Test for Negro Stars,’’ Paige proposed three experiments to determine whether Negro Leaguers were the equals of Major Leaguers: 1) the World Series winner would play Paige’s all-stars at Yankee Stadium, with his crew not getting paid unless it won; 2) he would pitch for any team in the majors the following year, getting a paycheck only if he proved his worth; 3) big league fans would vote whether to let in blacks.

It was audacious for Paige to talk to the Communist publication, bolder still to lay down the gauntlet for white baseball.

“The thought was that Negro stars wanted to play only among their own people, which was patently ridiculous,’’ Rodney explained in a recent interview. “It’s like if you’re one of the greatest violinists in the world and you lived in Podunk. You want to go to Carnegie Hall, you don’t want to stay in Podunk. [Satchel] understood exactly that somebody of his caliber pitching in the big leagues would lead the way for a new generation of black kids.’’

Rodney understood, too - that integrating America’s pastime would make it easier for America to envision integrating its classrooms and board rooms.

Larry Tye, a former Globe reporter, is author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.’’

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