If You Can Change Baseball, You Can Change America

Categories: MLB

As you ought to know by now, today, April 15, marks the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the end of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. To mark this stirring occasion, I had the good fortune to speak with Lester Rodney yesterday by phone. Rodney, for the many of you not in the know, is the former sportswriter with New York's Daily Worker. The Daily Worker was the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of America and Rodney is one of the nearly-forgotten principals involved in the integration of baseball. At age 85, Rodney is one of the last living men to have witnessed the debut from the press box (the AP's Jim Becker is the other survivor). In the past few years, he's been in the news quite a bit, finally having his due in the form of a biography (Press Box Red) and being inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals.

CP: Not too many people know about your influence with breaking the color barrier in baseball. But The Daily Worker was actually quite instrumental.

Rodney: Well, from the moment I started, in August of 1936, we immediately went after the problem of segregation in baseball. You have to remember, The Worker didn't have a sports page until I started one. And it was overwhelming to me that no one--no one!--in any paper other than the black newspapers (most of which were weeklies and therefore had limited space and influence) were covering this story. In fact, The New York Times didn't even mention Robinson until the fourth paragraph of their article, and it didn't even merit a mention on the front page.

But I couldn't make segregation the only subject of this section, though I wanted to. No, I had to write about sports in general as well.

CP: Did you have any difficulty in the press booth when you started? It strikes me that those guys were fairly conservative.

Rodney: It took a few months. At first they just let me into the press box, sitting in the back row. I couldn't belong to the BBWAA (The Base Ball Writers Association of America) until they saw I saw I could actually cover baseball. No one spoke to me, but it wasn't really a cold shoulder. After a while I gained credibility. People came to know me first as a sportswriter--and a good one, if I do say so myself--and the abstraction of being a communist fell away. Soon, I was accepted just like any other writer.

CP: What was that opening day like? Jackie Robinson's first day?

Rodney: I remember it as a cloudy April day. Some people assume there was this happy, celebratory mood, but there wasn't. The press didn't treat it in any way historically--we had a headline, as did the black newspapers, of course--but the crowds were very subdued. Of course, Branch Rickey went around to the leaders of the black churches and told their flocks that they had to "act properly"--which may have had an impact on the crowds.

There was certainly a consciousness hovering over the players. There wasn't any normal bantering you find between players in that Dodger dugout and on the field.

One thing I clearly remember was there in the first inning, when Jackie came out to first base and this boy, a teenager, I think, "Let's Go, Jackie!" He had this piping voice, and it echoed across that subdued crowd.

CP: And what do think of all the tributes we're seeing today?

Rodney: Well, I'm surprised. I thought that after the 50th anniversary the interest would die down and possibly even vanish. But this is larger even than ten years ago.

1947 was a remarkable season. He changed people over the course of that season, and of course over his career. I think of Carl Furillo, who didn't like the idea of playing with Jackie at first. Well, over the season, the abstraction of Jackie's being a black man wore off--it's difficult for a man to consider another man inferior when he is, in fact, so superior at the thing that you do best. And that was baseball.

One thing I'd like to leave you with is this, a thing that frankly I'm ashamed about. Why didn't the Dodgers, after Jackie's having been with them for ten years, not hire him as a coach? Can you imagine Jackie as a manager or coach? He was brilliant, he had a brilliant baseball mind. The only reason I can think of for his not being a coach was that he was too militant, he never kept his thoughts to himself when he felt there was injustice. Jackie refused to go to an old timers game between the Dodgers and the Yankees because he was upset about the opportunities for African-Americans in managerial and coaching positions. No one brought this up. Including me, and I feel bad about that.

Jackie Robinson is a true American hero--he ought to have a statue in Washington, D.C. as far as I'm concerned. People can't fathom how it was back then. Look at a guy like Josh Gibson. One of, if not the, greatest ballplayer, a right-handed Babe Ruth. Now, my daughter's a Giants fan, and she loves Barry Bonds. I tell her, imagine if Barry wasn't allowed to play? And that all his achievement were considered rumor or conjecture? It's unbelievable. Jackie proved that if you can change baseball, you can change America. As you ought to know by now, today, April 15, marks the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the end of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. To mark this stirring occassion, I had the good fortune to speak with Lester Rodney yesterday by phone. Rodney, for the many of you not in the know, is the former sportswriter with New York's Daily Worker--the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of America and one of the nearly-forgotten principals involved in the integration of baseball. At age 85, Rodney is one of the last living men to have witnessed the debut from the press box (the AP's Jim Becker is the other survivor). In the past few years, he's been in the news quite a bit, finally having his due in the form of a biography (Press Box Red) and being inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals.

CP: Not too many people know about your influence with breaking the color barrier in baseball. But The Daily Worker was actually quite instrumental.

Rodney: Well, from the moment I started, in August of 1936, we immediately went after the problem of segregation in baseball. You have to remember, The Worker didn't have a sports page until I started one. And it was overwhelming to me that no one--no one!--in any paper other than the black newspapers--most of which were weeklies and therefore had limited space and influence--were covering this story.

But I couldn't make it the only subject of this section, though I wanted to. No, I had to write about sports in general as well.

CP: Did you have any difficulty in the press booth when you started? It strikes me that those guys were fairly conservative.

Rodney: It took a few months. At first they just let me into the press box, sitting in the back row. I couldn't belong to the BBWAA (The Base Ball Writes Association of America) and no one spoke to me, but it wasn't really a cold shoulder. But after a while I gained credibility. People came to know me first as a sportswriter--and a good one, if I do say so myself--and the abstraction of being a communist fell away. Soon, I was accepted just like any other writer.

CP: What was that opening day like? Jackie Robinson's first day?

Rodney: I remember it as a cloudy April day. Some people assume there was thsi happy, celebratory mood, but there wasn't. The press didn't treat it in any way historically--we had a headline, as did the black newspapers, of course--but the crowds were very subdued. Of course, Branch Rickey went around to the leaders of the black churches and told their flocks that they had to "act properly"--which may have had an impact on the crowds.

There was certainly a consciousness hovering over the players. There wasn't any normal bantering you find between players in that Dodger dugout and on the field.

One thing I clearly remember was there in the first inning, when Jackie came out to first base and this boy, a teenager, I think, "Let's Go, Jackie!" He had this piping voice, and it echoed across that subdued crowd.

CP: And what do think of all the tributes we're seeing today.

Rodney: Well, I'm surprised. I thought that after the 50th anniversary the interest would die down and possibly even vanish. But this is larger even than ten years ago.

That was a remarkable season. He changed people over the course of that season, and of course over his career. I think of Carl Furillo, who didn't like the idea of playing with Jackie at first. Well, over the season, the abstraction of Jackie's being a black man wore off--it's difficult for a man to consider another man inferior when he is, in fact, so superior at the thing that you do best. And that was baseball.

One thing I'd like to leave you with is this thing, that frankly I'm ashamed about. Why didn't the Dodgers, after Jackie's having been with them for ten years, not hire him as a coach. Can you imagine Jackie as a manager or coach? He was brilliant, he had a brilliant baseball mind. The only reason I can think of for his not being a coach was that he was too militant, he never kept his thoughts to himself when he felt there was injustice. Jackie refused to go to an old timers game between the Dodgers and the Yankees because he was upset about the opportunities for African-Americans in managerial and coaching positions. No one brought this up. Including me.

Jackie Robinson is a true American hero--he ought to have a statue in Washington, D.C. as far as I'm concerned. People can't fathom how it was back then. Look at a guy like Josh Gibson. One of the greatest, if not the greatest ballplayer in history, a right-handed Babe Ruth. Now, my daughter's a Giants fan, and she loves Barry Bonds. I tell her, imagine if Barry wasn't allowed to play? And that all his achievement were considered rumor or conjecture? It's unbelievable. Jackie proved that if you can change baseball, you can change America.


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