Wednesday, February 10, 2010

COMMIE BASEBAL WRITER LESTER RODNEY, "WE HARDLY KNEW YA'"

You just don't see many good communist baseball writers these days. I'm pretty sure since Lester Rodney died in December that you don't see any. Rodney's history is fairly remarkable. If I'm not mistaken I posted something about this the day after Rodney died (maybe not here), but this article is sure worth reading.

Lester Rodney, we hardly knew ya'.
 
The following is from Demockracy.
 
For a (bleep)ing Communist, You Sure Know Your Baseball: Conversations with Lester Rodney
By Tom Gallagher

Email: TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com


Site: http://demockracy.com/category/commentary/quick-lit/


About: Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco antiwar and Democratic Party activist. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He regularly contributes to Demockracy through his "Quick Lit" book review column and other political pieces.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the 2007 HBO documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers was the inclusion of Lester Rodney as a commentator. Up until his death on December 20, 2009 at age 98, Rodney had been famously not famous. By all rights he should have been famous for being a sportswriter calling for the integration of baseball a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball “color line.” He wasn’t, though, because the publication where he had done his advocating was The Daily Worker, the American Communist Party’s New York City newspaper where Rodney edited the often one-man sports department from the 30’s through the 50’s (a fact I first learned in his byline for an In These Times article.)

As a Boston Globe op-ed put it a few days after his death “He was not a welcome ally to many in America’s civil rights movement of the early 1900s.” And he was even less welcome among those who ran the establishment media outlets that gave short shrift to the question of baseball’s exclusion of black players. But now, nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed that Lester just might have outlasted the people who didn’t care to mention him. After all, as he used to say, he was the last sportswriter covering the 1938 Joe Louis – Max Schmeling heavyweight championship fight in Yankee Stadium who was still vertical and by now there weren’t all that many of them around who’d covered the 1955 World Series either.

On the television program, Rodney spoke of October 4, the day that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the seventh game of the World Series against the New York Yankees, the team that had beaten them in five previous meetings. As this Dodger fan recalls it, he said, “They say there’s no cheering in the press box. That day, there was cheering in the press box.”

When I’d first met Rodney more than ten years earlier, I decided that I’d do my bit to try to get him some attention and some of what follows was originally published in the article “Lester Rodney, the Daily Worker, and the Integration of Baseball” in the 1999 edition of the Society for American Baseball Research publication, The National Pastime. Since that periodical’s circulation has unfortunately never matched its quality, expanding upon the original seemed to the point upon the occasion of Lester’s death.

"The whole history leading up to Jackie Robinson has usually been that an electric light went on in the head of the noble Branch Rickey one morning and he ended baseball discrimination.” As the lean, white-haired Lester Rodney spoke in his living room in Rossmoor, the sprawling retirement community east of San Francisco, these events were now nearly half a century and twenty-five hundred miles removed. Important details now seemed in danger of being lost forever.

Given the power of the pen he once wielded and its influence in baseball’s integration, the former Daily Worker sportswriter might well have written the history himself. But everything in life — no matter how long a life it may be — is a matter of priorities, and in recent years Rodney had switched his from writing about sports to playing them. Had he taken the time to write the book, he might not have stayed in such extraordinary shape and might never have become the first top-ranked tennis player in California’s 85 years-and-over bracket. So, for now, an important chapter in the story was known mostly to those who knew Rodney — and who happened to ask.

Although he scoffed at the notion that Brooklyn’s “Great Mahatma” acted alone, Rodney didn’t mean to minimize the credit due the Dodgers president — some club owner actually had to put a black ballplayer into a major league uniform and Rickey acted while the others mumbled. It’s just that he knew there were a lot of other people generating the electricity that finally turned on that light.

Not the least of them was Rodney himself. In fact, by the time Robinson took his position at first base in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, more than a decade had passed since Rodney first took up the cause of integrating baseball as sports editor of the Communist Party’s New York Daily Worker newspaper.

Today the concept of a “communist sportswriter” seems a very strange proposition. In Rodney’s day it was not quite so exotic, but still no one would confuse the Daily Worker’s sports department with the “toy department” of any other newspaper. As Karl Marx might have said, heretofore sportswriters had merely interpreted the world of sports; the point, however, was to change it.

The first thing Rodney tried to change was what the 1923 Sporting News called baseball’s “tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible.” In one respect the cause was a natural for a group that considered itself “the Party of Negro and White.” The Communists had, after all, distinguished themselves in defense of the nine black “Scottsboro Boys” charged with the 1931 rape of two white women in Alabama when few others would touch the cause. They also supported the right to national self determination for a “Black Belt” in the American south, an idea that did not even occur to very many other people — white or black; and, on occasion, they were known to conduct internal party trials of members accused of racism.

The baseball part did not come so easily, though. The Communists displayed but a tenuous grip on the pulse of the nation, dating back to their early decision to take the party underground, in expectation of treatment similar to what the Bolsheviks faced under the Czar. It took three years for them to conclude that they would not be declared illegal after all, resurface, and set off in search of America. And eventually Lester Rodney took them out to the ballpark.
The basics of the Jackie Robinson story are, of course, familiar to baseball fans: Rickey signed Robinson — a man whose athletic achievements had already prompted one sportswriter to call him the “Jim Thorpe of his race,” took him from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, sent him out of the country for a season of minor league ball in Montreal, and finally put him in Ebbets Field the following year. But, until the 1995 publication of David Falkner’s Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson From Baseball to Birmingham, no mainstream publication had ever provided any detail of how in 1936 “the Daily Worker began a steady and unremitting campaign for integration … spearheaded by sports writer and editor Lester Rodney,” or noted that it was not even until “A year or so after the “Worker” began its push,” that “the Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely circulated Negro weekly in the nation, initiated its own campaign.”

Rodney’s method was quite simple. He would ask questions other sportswriters wouldn’t or couldn’t. He recalled, “First we’d go to the top officials and they’d say, ‘There’s nothing written, it’s up to the club owners.’ We’d go to the owners and they’d say, ‘My heart is with you but the players would never stand for it.’ Then you go to the players and shoot that down.”

A typical July 19, 1939 Worker story, “Big Leaguers Rip Jim Crow,” quoted members of the Cincinnati Reds. (The franchise often found its fate intertwined with that of Rodney’s organization: according to one team historian, each “crisis in affairs between the United States and Soviet Russia” brought new demands “that the management change the team’s name” despite the fact that “the Reds have been the Reds since 1869, one year before Nicolai Lenin was born and ten years before Stalin’s birthday.”) Manager Bill McKechnie claimed, “I’d use negroes if I were given permission.” Pitcher Bucky Walters declared them “Some of the best players I’ve ever seen” and back-to-back no-hit pitcher Johnny Vandermeer concluded “I don’t see why they’re banned.” ”Sensational stuff in 1939,” Rodney remembered.
Two seasons earlier he’d published an interview with Satchel Paige, the most famous Negro League star. Rodney recalled that “At the end of the interview I said to Paige that (Hall of Fame pitcher) Dazzy Vance came to the Dodgers at 29 years of age, which was old for a ballplayer, but that when he was 32 he won 25 games. Paige, who was then 29 himself, says, ‘I don’t think they can keep us out three more years.’ But he was wrong. He had to wait another eleven years. Very tragic and it bothers me that Paige is always portrayed as an egocentric guy, content to be a big fish in a small pond. It’s absolutely false.” (Joe DiMaggio, once told the “Daily Worker” that Paige, whom he’d played against in post-season exhibitions, was “the best pitcher I ever faced.” Paige ultimately became the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame primarily on the basis of a Negro League career.)

In 1941 Rodney and his confederates stepped up the campaign, sending telegrams to every major league team owner asking them to try out black players. ”The only fully positive response we got was from William Benswanger of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next spring we arranged a tryout for Roy Campanella — who was about 20 then — and two other players. And then Benswanger came under intense pressure — I’ve never known the exact nature — not to hold the tryouts and he backed out as gracefully as he could.

“I never slammed him for it, because he was the first honest guy who answered, ‘You’re right and I’m willing to give it a try.’ And then he came under all that pressure. So that was the first tryout that never happened.

“Imagine how baseball history would have been changed if Benswanger had told all the other owners to go fuck themselves and hired Campanella, Satchel Paige and maybe three other players from the (Negro National League) Homestead Grays who were the best team in baseball and played in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was the heart of black baseball then. The Pirates would have immediately won five straight pennants.”

Invisible Men, Donn Rogosin’s 1983 history of the Negro Leagues, is fairly typical of the brush off usually given to the Communists’ efforts, dismissing the Benswanger affair as a “non-existent tryout,” and concluding that “The black players and the black press were unimpressed by the Communist campaigns.”
The Communists, however, clearly impressed at least one black player: Roy Campanella’s eponymous 1952 biography acknowledges that the “Daily Worker” had “pounded hard and unceasingly against the color line in organized ball.” What makes this recognition particularly compelling is the fact that the book’s author, New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young, was known neither for left wing sympathies nor graciousness. According to Rodney, “Dick Young says to him, ‘We don’t want that stuff in there; you want to keep your skirts clean.’ And Campanella says, ‘What do you mean? That’s what happened. You want to know my life story? This is part of it.’

“Campanella believed that baseball was the most important reason why the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954. When I heard that I said, ‘Come on, Roy, what are you talking about?’ Campy said, ‘All I know is that the ballclubs going down south traveling together, playing together, living together, were the first all the time, they were the first in hotels; they were the first in trains. Don’t tell me it wasn’t the most important thing.” Indeed, at first Campanella’s conclusion may seem that of a man overestimating the significance of his own corner of the world. But the record shows that Birmingham, Alabama actually ended its prohibition of interracial sports a month before the Court ordered its schools desegregated in the landmark “Brown versus the Board of Education” decision. The reason? To allow Campy, Jackie and the rest of the Dodgers to play a spring training exhibition game there.

And a letter to the August 20, 1939 Daily Worker appears to give the lie to the alleged indifference of black sportswriters to the Communists’ efforts. The letter-writer takes the “opportunity to congratulate you and the Daily Worker for the way you have joined with us in the current series concerning Negro Players in the major leagues, as well as all your past great efforts in this aspect,” and goes on to express the hope for further collaboration. The author was Wendell Smith, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper whose nationwide readership would exceed 400,000 during the following decade.

“You know, Jules Tygiel’s book (Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy) was the first to acknowledge our efforts and that wasn’t until 1983,” Rodney recalled. ”In that Ken Burns series (the nine part 1994 Public Broadcasting System documentary of baseball history) it mentions that (manager) Leo Durocher told a sportswriter that he would use some of the great Negroes in a minute on the Dodgers if he were given permission. I’m the sportswriter he told that to. Burns, of course, had a big corporate-funded series and he did manage to push the role of the Negro to the center, as he did with his Civil War series. But even PBS is not so radical on these things,” he adds with a grin, “as you can tell by how many radicals you’ll see on the McNeil-Lehrer news hour. So you can’t fault Burns for not mentioning the Daily Worker.”

At that point in the conversation the voice of Rodney’s wife Claire interjected from the next room, “I can fault him.” An active Communist herself, Claire was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee when she was teaching elementary school in Lawndale, California. ”They never realized that I was her husband,” Rodney noted.

It’s probably less accurate to say that Rodney and the integration campaign — that eventually included “End Jim Crow in Baseball” petitions with two million signatures gathered by the Young Communist League and labor organizations like the National Maritime Union — were written out of history than that they were just never written into it in the first place. Some noticed, however – David Falkner’s book notes how “remarkable was the passion and the insistence of the campaign which was generally lost on white America — though not on those in government who were always vigilant on the twin menaces of communist agitation and black unrest.”

 “We’re sort of considered folk heroes by many young people now, but things like that created problems for our children in high school in the 1950’s,” Rodney would later say.

Rodney himself was no Red Diaper Baby; he recalled his Republican father displaying a window sign in their Brooklyn house mourning the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. But then “in 1931 or 32 — during the depression — three of us rented a cold water flat on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village — ten dollars a month. We were there for the bohemian atmosphere, the cellar clubs, poetry readings. We were poor as hell but we didn’t know it.

“I wrote some pulp magazine stuff to pay the rent — cheap romances, love stories, just junk. Then we all did our creative writing and critiqued each other. We sold a few stories; I don’t even have them anymore. It all got lost or thrown out when I went into the army. It was just about life and the torments of youth. It was a very heady New York, Greenwich Villagey atmosphere; the cafeterias were humming with literary discussions and the Communists at that time were impinging on everybody’s consciousness.”

Bohemianism never dulled Rodney’s interest in sports, so one thing that was clear to him about the Communists was that when they addressed sports it was an embarrassment. When he told them so in a letter to the Worker, he was invited in to discuss it and he wound up doing the occasional weekly piece — gratis. By 1936 the Communists were eager to shed strange and foreign identifications in the public mind and entered their “Popular Front” period: “Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism” replaced “Towards Soviet America” as the party’s slogan. The Daily Worker now wondered whether it should deal with popular concerns like sports on a more regular basis. When a poll of Worker readers came back 6-1 in favor of daily sports coverage, the paper asked Rodney to take it on.

Of course, since this was the Communist party’s newspaper, the question would not be settled as simply as that — there were those who thought the paper should cover “people’s sports” like soccer, not “corporate sports” like baseball. But once the paper decided that a commitment to “Twentieth Century Americanism” required coverage of the “National Pastime,” that coverage would be activist — since this was the Communist party’s newspaper.

It should be noted that even if Ken Burns did not give Rodney his due, Leo Durocher did. In his 1993 book, The Era 1947-1957; When the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers Ruled the World, Roger Kahn quotes Durocher telling Rodney, “For a fucking communist, you know your baseball.” “I was a fan,” Rodney said. ”That’s crucial. They couldn’t have hired just an ideologue to run the campaign. You had to know baseball.”

The integration campaign was not the limit of the Worker’s innovative baseball coverage. By 1938 the Americanization of the party had progressed sufficiently to allow it to engage New York Yankee third baseman Red (hair, not politics) Rolfe to cover the World Series from a player’s point of view.

“I’d go up to Yankee Stadium after a World Series game and I’d jump in the locker room,” Rodney remembers, “I’m in a hurry. Our deadline is the earliest of any of the papers and so I’d try to speed things up. I’d say, ‘Red, that was pretty much a key moment when Crosetti decided to go to third instead of going for the doubleplay’ and he’d say, ‘No’ — you couldn’t speed him up — ‘No, no, no. I wouldn’t say that at all.’ And he painstakingly would go into his own view of the game. This guy was a Dartmouth College graduate; he had just got married and wanted to show his wife that he was more than just a jock. That’s why he agreed to do it for the nominal payment we could afford. He took great pride in these things.”

First hand post-season coverage has now become a commonplace, but “As the Communists used to say, ‘It’s no accident that we did it first.’ A lot of papers didn’t think of ballplayers as having brains. We went to the boxers and the ballplayers themselves and got their feelings. We probably sometimes exaggerated it and added proletarian horseshit about it, but still …”


Rodney once introduced heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis to novelist Richard Wright, author of Native Son. “Joe Louis was training at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Sportswriters were invited to go to these things as part of the pre-fight publicity, so I told them I had a guest along, a rather well known writer. Louis and Wright had about twenty minutes alone. Apparently Louis had once seen a collection of Wright’s stories, so he knew about him. Richard told me on the way back that although he wasn’t formally educated Joe was no fool and that they’d had a fascinating discussion. Wright wrote about it somewhere, although at this point I don’t remember exactly where.”

Since Rodney usually operated as a one-man sports section it might take him a while to get to every sport, but there wasn’t much he missed. Given that more than three out of every four current National Basketball Association players are black, it may surprise some to know that there ever could have been an issue about letting blacks play the professional game, but there was. And the Worker was in the middle of it.

“Joe Lapchick, who was the center on the original Celtics, coached the Knickerbockers, the first New York professional team, and his son Richard later told me that his father, a devout Catholic, said ‘That damned Daily Worker has done more good helping me to get Sweetwater Clifton (the team’s first black player) on the Knicks.’ This came after Jackie Robinson and it just flowed out of it. There was no big fuss about it. We wrote about it, but not in a scolding way as if the Knicks are the only sinners. There was actually more work done on basketball integration in Boston (where the Celtics signed the first black NBA players) than in New York.”

And, of course, there could be no good communist journalism without an international dimension. The Worker promoted the now largely forgotten Games for Spain, mostly basketball games held in New York’s old St. Nicholas Arena with proceeds going to the Loyalist side in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. As Rodney recalled, “Spain was just not a Communist cause. Any decent person with humane liberal impulses who didn’t think that the government of Spain ran around butchering nuns was for the Loyalists against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. So we got a lot of top college players who liked the idea and responded to a call to do something beyond just playing for their coach. One game we had a member of the original Celtics, Wee Willie Marron who had become a Communist organizer in New Jersey, put on a shooting exhibition at halftime.”

After several passport rejections and a Washington Post editorial mocking the State Department’s apparent fear of a Communist sportswriter posing a threat to American interests abroad, Rodney was finally cleared to cover the winter games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the first Olympics of any kind with athletes from the Soviet Union. Ironically, this trip gave Rodney his first exposure to the events that would cause his resignation from the Daily Worker and the Communist party before the next year was out.

“This was January and February of 1956. The twentieth Congress [of the Soviet Communist Party] at which Khrushchev threw the book at Stalin wasn’t until later that year. I stopped in Rome on the way to the Olympics and went to the Communists’ paper L’Unita, which was the biggest paper going in Italy. They wined and dined me and I met some party officials. The Italian Communists were always way ahead of us and they said, ‘What do you think about what’s going on in Russia?’ I said, ‘What’s going on in Russia?’ They said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on with Stalin and Khrushchev?’ They had the vibrations. Togliatti, the Italian leader, had been edging away from the hard Stalin line for years. They made us look like the rigid simpletons we were in the United States.

“We had a Communist party convention in 57, the famous convention in which the forces behind [Daily Worker editor] Johnny Gates wanted to transform the party and get the Soviet monkey off our back. That was our last gasp, but the good people were already leaving from despair. It was a psychological jolt to leave, but it wasn’t as painful for us as it was for the unknown heroes who had quietly left earlier. We were going out in a groundswell of popular opinion against what had become evident, so you know we were no great heroes in that sense.

“The real story which has never been investigated at all is the people who discerned all this years earlier and without leaving their ideals or becoming right-wingers or anything, suffered the blows and arrows and had their personal lives ruptured and sometimes their own families broken apart. The people who left when the Duclos letter came [In 1945 a French Communist, Jacques Duclos, criticized the American party in an article that was widely assumed to indicate Soviet disapproval as well and resulted in the ouster of "twentieth century Americanism" party chairman Earl Browder in favor of hard-liner William Foster] or when the [1939 Nazi-Soviet] Pact was signed – those are the heroes and heroines. I always thought about that. I wished that I’d had the time and the energy and the will to look them up – to tell their story. It’ll never happen now; it’s too far gone.”
But for all his regrets regarding the Communist Party, Rodney never counted among them the goal of social equality that led him to join in the first place. Nor did he have any difficulty finding political relevance in events of half a century ago. He gladly explained his belief that Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese articulated the principles behind affirmative action years before anyone had given the theory a name.

“In 1947 when Jackie Robinson had first come up he was taking a lot of punishment because he had promised Rickey not to fight back, no matter what. And the bad guys were taking advantage of him; Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals came down on his heel at first base; another time some little known shortstop for the Chicago Cubs pretended that Robinson had done something wrong sliding into second and jumped on top of him and began pummeling him and Robinson lay there until the umpires came and pushed the shortstop off. We sportswriters spent time in the dugout before games and knew some of the white players on the Dodgers were really troubled by what was happening. The discussions would go something like this: ‘Democracy means that everybody’s the same, so you treat everybody the same, so that means we don’t do anything special. You treat Jackie the same way as anybody.’

“Pee Wee cut a layer deeper and he scratched his Kentucky head and he said, ‘Yeah, democracy means everybody is the same, but things aren’t the same for Jackie because he’s the only colored guy and he’s catching special hell because of that, so maybe there’s a way we can make things the same for him.’ If that isn’t affirmative action! Here’s a baseball player saying this. That’s the special contribution of Pee Wee Reese.”

In 2007 I approached Rodney again for his thoughts on Robinson as the sixtieth anniversary of his major league debut approached. He told me: “Today I’m curious as to whether Jackie Robinson means anything to a younger generation. The more I think of what he went through – he was a militant in the Army and at Pasadena Junior College – and he had the agreement not to fight back or even glare back for two years. Here was a 28 year old rookie – and you know that’s quite old for baseball – who had to submerge his personality. He still won the pennant and the Rookie of the Year award. You know the Dallas Cowboys put red, white, and blue on their uniforms and said they were America’s team, but the Dodgers really were America’s team in those years. They won six pennants in ten years and it could easily have been eight, if Thomson hadn’t hit that home run and Dressen had put a runner in for Abrams. (The Dodgers lost both the 1950 and 51 pennants on the last day of the season.)

“He was an underrated American hero whose statue should be on the Mall in Washington, apart from the kind of ballplayer he was. So you ask why didn’t the Dodgers keep him as a coach? Could you see him coaching base running? It’s because after the pact was over, he was truculent. He was an Eddie Stanky type. They held him to a double standard. They would have kept Campy after he retired because he was quiet. I was remiss in not doing something at the time.

“My respect for him has grown and grown over the years. The effect he had on people! Carl Furillo, who wasn’t “going to play with any niggers,” at the end of the year was hugging cheek to cheek with him at the celebration when they won the pennant. When he was invited to his first Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, he said, ‘I must respectfully decline until I see some progress in the front office of baseball.’”
Rodney moved to LA in 1958, ironically the same year as Walter O’Malley turned Pee Wee and the rest of the Trolley Dodgers into Freeway Dodgers. “I wound up working for the Santa Monica Outlook for about a year and a half. A dreadful paper – we called it the Santa Monica Outrage. One condition of employment was that you were not a member of the Newspaper Guild. That was the year that [U.S. Senator William]Knowland was running for governor against Pat Brown. The Outlook wouldn’t let you use the company parking lot if you had a bumpersticker for Brown.”

In 1964 Rodney got a bit luckier, landing a job with the Long Beach Press Telegram, a Knight Ridder paper where he eventually became religion editor. “How did I become religion editor? How does the real world work? The managing editor is unhappy with the religion pages and comes into the press room and says, ‘One of you guys has got to be able to do a better job. Rodney — you!’ I found it quite interesting; it was the time of the ecumenical movement. I was actually cited by the National Council of Churches for my coverage of churches and the Vietnam War.”

Eventually he caught the attention of the Los Angeles Red Squad who visited the Press Telegram in the hopes of getting him fired. Rodney remembered, “The managing editor, a Republican ex-marine, told them to get lost. By this point he knew me and he didn’t care what they had to say about me. If they had gotten there when I had just started it might have been another matter” – Religion Editor Exposed as Communist!

But unusual as it was going from Communist sportswriter to religion editor, his 1975 retirement from the Press Telegram gave him the time to do something arguably even more remarkable — pursuing the second career in sports that caused a local newspaper to dub him the “George Burns of tennis.” He joined the senior circuit at age 65 with mixed results, but reached #7 ranking in Southern California in the 70+ bracket. From then on he just outlasted or maybe outlived the opposition. At age 79 Rodney and his wife Clare moved north to be closer to their children, but he still teamed with a southern partner to become the top ranked doubles combination in Southern California in the 80+ category. As a singles player he reached as high as #2 statewide and #6 nationally.

Rodney kept his hand in journalism with the occasional article for the Rossmoor News, a weekly with a circulation of 8,600. In a 1995 piece he explained the secret of his tennis success: a player’s best chance for attaining high ranking in any five year age bracket comes in the first year when they are still relatively “young” and he predicted that “Come 1996 yours truly will magically metamorphose from a tired old 84 to a frisky young 85.” And sure enough, after winning his first two singles tournaments, Rodney finally achieved the number one spot — at age 85. Although he lived for another thirteen years, Rodney did not make a run at being the first champ in any higher age brackets, dropping out of the tournament scene out of consideration for his (now late) wife’s declining health.

When asked about his current politics at age 85, Rodney said, “That’s a constantly evolving thing. There was a period when I said ‘I don’t know what socialism is any more; they’re going to have to call it something else anyhow, after what the Russians did with it.’ Now I’m ready to say, ‘Why give away a good word?’ Democratic socialism in some form is going to come back. Capitalism keeps creating new radicals. You can talk to a 45 year old conservative who no longer feels secure in his middle-level corporate life and sees his company begin to hire temporary guys or people who’re just short of the hours needed for benefits. And they’ll be making money hand over fist and they’ll downsize to compete for the future – probably in Asia with cheap labor, with no thought about the people, no loyalty to the people. There’s still life in the old boy yet, but some time in the future – and the way history is speeded up it may not be all that far – there’s going to be more people questioning capital than even when the Communist Party was in its heyday or the Socialists or the Wobblies before them.

“There’s got to be a lot of thought as to what replaces it, including individual freedoms and the right to own property – you know, things that we didn’t take into account. But I have no profound wisdom on the future. If someone asked me how you would most closely describe yourself now, I would say I’m a democratic, bill of rights, American socialist and not only that, I don’t completely say that everything that happened in the name of communism was bad, as some of the Eastern European countries that are reelecting communists are discovering. They realize, ‘We had a certain certainty to life and a certain humanity toward old people and children and priorities of culture that we don’t even see now – it’s all money.’ Of course, they’re not going to go back to Stalinism.” And he did allow as how there were a few memories that seemed silly decades later: “I used to think there’d be great boulevards named after American Communist leaders, like William Z. Foster Boulevard and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Street. The closest we came was Jack London Square.”

Since Rodney’s death the press has been all over the story of his role in integrating baseball. Wasn’t much like that when he was alive, though. But if the mass media didn’t pay all that much attention, there were those who did. Rodney recalled, “Nat Holman died in February [1995] at age 98 and his New York Times obituary mentioned the point shaving scandal that occurred when he was basketball coach at City College [of New York]. So I wrote a letter to the Times saying that it should be noted that point shaving didn’t just happen at City College, that it was widespread. Two days after this appeared, the phone was ringing off the hook from New York … old CCNY guys congratulating me on writing this, saying that they had winced reading Holman’s obituary, as though it was only City College.

“One call was from a guy whose father was in the National Maritime Union and had told him about me. Then there was the guy at Newsday, the big Long Island paper. He was a young man; he didn’t know my name or my past. He said that my letter made him realize that his own paper was still running the point spread on basketball games and he was planning to go into the editorial board tomorrow and raise hell.

“And then I got one – and that’s where I’m going this afternoon – from a guy who lives in Berkeley and reads the New York Times. He says, ‘Are you the Lester Rodney who was in Mindanao in 1945?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘52nd Field Hospital?’ – which is amazing because guys who were in the 52nd probably don’t even remember the number of the outfit. ’Yeah.’ And so he says, ‘Well, you were my nurse.’ He was an 18 year old infantryman. The army was still segregated then, but there was one black guy in the ward – this guy tells me – and his bed was positioned out of the way up against the wall and nobody was talking to him.

“I don’t remember the incident, but the guy from Berkeley remembers it clearly. Apparently I told him that I’m going to change the bedding around and he was going to be next to the black guy so he wouldn’t be isolated. It sounded like nothing to me but he said it was so revolutionary to him that someone who had ideals would put them into practice and explain them. And so I became a sort of hero to him and he never thought he’d see my name again. I was 34, a father figure to him.”

This was another point in our conversations when a voice came from the next room. “How do you like that story?” Clare asked, “I was on the upstairs phone; this guy was checking – ‘Are you so and so? Were you in this place?’ And then there’s a pause and he says, ‘you were my nurse.’ I had goose pimples. I just wish I had a recording of that.” Lester insisted “It’s not an uncommon story that guys get together many years later.” ”Lester,” Clare retorted, “after 50 years it’s an uncommon story,” at which point Lester attempted to put an end to the debate with the declaration, “Ah, we’re going to do it every 50 years.”

Although I actually talked with Lester on the phone only a week or so before he died, our last exchange that touched upon politics was in 2008 when he asked if I recommended buying a copy of Robert Service’s “Comrades: A History of World Communism,” after I’d sent him a review of the book I’d written for the National Catholic Reporter, shortly before that publication opted for a less secular book review policy. Never too late to learn a thing or two. My favorite memory of him over the last several years is the holiday party where he told me that although he was no longer on the competitive tennis tour, he was still playing friendly doubles twice a week at Rossmoor and described the end of one recent match.

The opposing team and their ways were very familiar to him from past play and he knew that when his team hit the ball to a certain spot this particular opposing player would try to hit it to the alley on the opposite side of the court. “So it’s game point for us and I hit the ball to that spot and immediately starting running to where I know he’s going to try to hit it. He does just that and I get to the spot and flick it over the net and it’s a game winner. By now, my momentum has taken me all the way onto the adjacent court where a woman who’s been playing there has seen the whole thing happening on our court and says to me, ‘You’re not ninety!’ And I went home with a big smile on my face.”

1 comment:

Gene Gordon said...

I live in Rossmoor and knew Lester. I very much enjoyed this piece. Gene Gordon