Ethics Hero Emeritus: Lester Rodney (1911-2009)

There are so many people who escape our notice despite great deeds and remarkable lives. One of those who had escaped mine was Lester Rodney, who died this week.  He was an Ethics Hero. He was also an American Communist.
Lester Rodney was the long-time sports editor of the American Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker, and was a member of both the Communist Party and the Baseball Writers Association of America. He used his sports section and his influence in baseball to wage a lonely battle against racial discrimination in professional sports in general, and the banning of blacks from baseball in particular. More than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Rodney was railing against the baseball establishment’s racist policies in the six-day a week sports pages that he had launched in the Daily Worker in 1936.

In a 1942 “open letter” To Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Rodney wrote,

“Negro soldiers and sailors are among those beloved heroes of the American people who have already died for the preservation of this country and everything this country stands for — yes, including the great game of baseball.You, the self-proclaimed ‘Czar’ of baseball, are the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our National Pastime. You are the one refusing to say the word which would do more to justify baseball’s existence in this year of war than any other single thing.”

Rodney publicized Communist-led petitions to end the race barrier in baseball.  He tried to build public interest in the great  stars of the Negro Leagues, like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, by describing their on-field exploits and quoting baseball stars and managers who admired them. He pressed the argument that the great, unused talents of black players could transform the local team, the then-pathetic Brooklyn Dodgers, commonly called “Dem Bums,” into pennant contenders almost overnight.

Rodney’s cause finally prevailed in 1947, when Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey made Jackie Robinson the first of a wave of black ballplayers to transform the sport. But because he was a Communist,Lester  Rodney’s contribution to the desegregation of baseball has been virtually ignored and forgotten, even though the local team he most harangued about the issue, his beloved Dodgers, ultimately became the team that broke the color ban, and, as he predicted, became one of the best teams in all of baseball because of it. Historian Arnold Rampersad was one of the few who has made an effort to ensure that Rodney receives the credit that is due to him.

Any man or woman with values and principles can make a difference in society, simply by keeping an important idea alive.  Lester Rodney’s life is proof of that. Now it is up to history and all of us to keep alive the memory of an obscure sportswriter, Communist—and World War II veteran—whose vigorous advocacy of an idea played a significant role in advancing the cause of civil rights in America, righting a terrible wrong, and giving baseball fans something to cheer about..

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