A reporter's role in breaking baseball's color barrier
Sportswriter Lester Rodney urged the integration of black ballplayers.
On Sunday, Aug. 16, 1936, Lester Rodney, the sports editor of the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, called for the end of the color line in baseball. Mr. Rodney wrote that black ballplayers would improve the quality of play in the major leagues. He urged fans to pressure team owners to make baseball the national game it purported to be. "You pay the prices. Demand better ball," Rodney wrote. "Demand Americanism in baseball."
This was the beginning of the New York City-based newspaper's decade-long campaign to integrate baseball. Once Rodney began writing about the issue, he said he realized that the story of baseball's color line was the newspaper's – by default. "It was wide open. No one was covering it," he said. "We were the only nonblack newspaper writing about it for a long time."
Most American sportswriters participated in a conspiracy of silence on the issue of the color line in baseball. J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, once wrote that there "was no good" to come from raising the race issue.
When mainstream sportswriters mentioned the great black pitcher Satchel Paige, which they rarely did, they portrayed him in racist stereotype, as a hard-throwing Stepin Fetchit. Rodney, however, interviewed Mr. Paige at length, including a challenge by Paige that he could beat any all-star team of white big leaguers. No other daily mentioned the challenge. After his rookie year, New York Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio told New York sportswriters that Paige, whom he had faced in an off-season exhibition, was the best pitcher he had ever played against. Only Rodney reported the DiMaggio statement.
The Baseball Writers Association, like the game it covered, excluded black sportswriters. Rodney and the other Worker sportswriters, because they were white, were eligible. Rodney's membership card gave him access to locker rooms, dugouts, press boxes, and the playing fields.
Rodney remembered sympathetic sportswriters seeking him out with stories they could not report. "I can't tell you how many times they would say, 'Here's a little something. I can't use it, but I'd love to see it in print.' "