ABOUT LESTER RODNEY
I met Lester at the end of WWII. By then he was already one of my personal heroes, and had been ever since he began his crusade against Jim Crow in baseball in 1936. I was one of thousands of young people who rallied with great enthusiasm to the cause he spearheaded. We collected petitions, protested at ballparks and spread the word from Lester’s groundbreaking interviews and initiatives. In my home state of Connecticut, we demanded without success a try-out in AA baseball for a talented young pitcher, Billy Taylor. And Lester’s example galvanized us to challenge Jim Crow at other recreational facilities. I remember our group, which included a high school student who eventually became the first African-American woman to be appointed as a federal judge, militantly protesting the shameful color bar at a community swimming pool in New Haven. I mention this because to appreciate what Lester meant to us, it’s important to remember that in those days baseball reflected the widespread poison of Jim Crow that permeated every aspect of life, North as well as South.
In his book with Irwin Silber, “Press Box Red”, Lester’s landing a job as the Daily Worker’s first real sports editor is depicted accurately as a strange and somewhat awkward marriage. Embracing a genuine lover of America’s pastime was certainly new ground for the Communists of that day, but the fight against Jim Crow and lynching had been a core cause for many years that joined Communists to the struggle of African-Americans for full equality. What Lester and his comrades did was to add a new dimension, one that reached into the daily lives of millions of Americans and that ultimately reached beyond Sports. Like all civil rights progress, the victory over discrimination in sports resulted mainly from long years of determined effort in the African-American community, often with no apparent white support. Lester recognized that and put a priority on direct solidarity with Black athletes and publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier that were leading the fight.
I met Lester through his wife, Clare. Clare and I were organizers in the same youth movements during WWII and for quite a few years after. Clare and Lester, and Roz and I, were bringing up new families as the cold war unfolded and McCarthyism gained sway. It wasn’t an easy time for those of us on the left, progressives and liberals included, as blacklists, and attorney general’s lists, and subpoenas and arrests multiplied. One of the things that amazed me most about Lester was his boldness, in and out of the press box, his unwillingness to be intimidated by the “red” label, his absolute refusal to be cut off from the main stream of American life. It took guts, more than most of us have, to take his rightful place as a journalist, to connect with famous ball players, to go face to face with the powerful in the pursuit of social justice.
Life changed pretty dramatically for each of us during the mid-to-late 1950s. Some ideas and organizational allegiances were left behind, while fundamental values and commitment to social change remained central. Clare and Lester forged new and very worthwhile careers in California, despite periodic political harassment. It’s in these latter years that my own relationship with Lester became close and flourished, until the last few years when Roz's illness made visits too difficult.
Lester and I shared two passions that never left us even as we got to old age. The first page I open in the morning is the sports section; then I get to the serious stuff about the state of the world. As we walked around the Lafayette Reservoir, we went back and forth between both passions. We were more likely to disagree as fans (I’m a Giants fan) than on politics or the human condition. Talk was particularly intense during the time that Gorbachev was seeking to transform the USSR into a democratic socialist society. We both rooted passionately for that process to succeed, and the world would be better off today if it had. Of course the change we most wanted to see was in our own America, with so much to offer to our people and to the world, but so badly afflicted by the injustices of an uncontrolled and destructive capitalist system.
Lester was optimistic about America. I think that came of his own experience, his faith in accomplishing in the sports world what most people once considered impossible. It took a long time, too long, for Lester Rodney to be recognized as one of America’s greats. To me he was always that, and a dear friend as well.