Cultural Logic [ISSN 1097-3087] 
[NOTE this paper was also published in a book as part of a  collection called "Jackie Robinson Race, Sports, and the  American Dream," edited by Joseph Dorinson and Joram  Warmund, published by M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998.] 


 "A Sickening Red Tinge" 
The Daily Worker's Fight Against White Baseball 

Fall 1999 [Volume 3, Number 1] 

Chris Lamb < 
Kelly Rusinack < 


[NOTEan abridged version of this paper also appeared  as an article on the SportsJones web site


On Sunday, August 16, 1936, under the headline, "Fans Ask  End of Jim Crow Baseball," the Sunday Worker pronounced "Jim Crow baseball must end." Thus began the Communist Party  newspaper's campaign to end discrimination in the national  pastime. The unbylined story, written by sports editor  Lester Rodney, questioned the fairness of segregated  baseball. Rodney believed that black ballplayers from the  Negro Leagues would improve the quality of play in the major  leagues. He appealed to readers to demand that the national  pastime -- particularly team owners, or "magnates" as the  newspaper called them -- admit black ballplayers"Fans,  it's up to you! Tell the big league magnates that you're  sick of the poor pitching in the American League." "Big  league ball is on the downgrade, "Rodney declared, "You pay  the high prices. Demand better ball. Demand Americanism in  baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white stars." 

  Over the next decade, the Daily Worker brashly challenged  the baseball establishment to permit black players;  condemned white owners and managers for perpetuating the  color ban; organized petition drives and distributed  anti-discrimination pamphlets outside ballparks; and  criticized the mainstream press for ignoring the race issue.  The CP forced the issue in front of the baseball  establishment, raised awareness about the color line among  social progressives, and lobbied local and state politicians  in New York. As Rodney explained"We were the only  non-black newspaper writing about it for a long time." 

In recent years, scholars have focused more and more on the  role of the press in covering the integration of baseball --  one of the most influential civil rights stories in the  years succeeding World War II. For example, Chris Lamb and  Glen Bleske assert that in news accounts, equality on the  baseball field became a metaphor for equality in civil  rights. 

For black journalists and their readers, the story  symbolized the hopes for and the dreams of true integration.  Black sportswriters and their newspapers recognized and  reported this critical juncture in the story of baseball and  the fight for civil rights. No group had a greater  responsibility as an organ of racial unity during and after  World War II than the black press -- and "the extent to  which it understood and met its responsibility," Bill Weaver  wrote, "can be observed in its handling of the assault on  professional baseball's 'color line.'" By contrast, white  sportswriters, working for mainstream dailies, maintained a  "conspiracy of silence" on the color line, either afraid of  upsetting their editors and readers or convinced of the need  for segregation on personal grounds. 

As part of an overall neglect of the legacy of leftist  politics in the United States, however, little has been said  about the Worker's crusade to end segregated baseball. A few  writers noted that the Communists seized upon the issue of  racial discrimination in baseball and for years campaigned  to end the color line. Two Worker sportswriters -- Rodney  and Bill Mardo -- told a conference commemorating the 50th  anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking major league  baseball's color line that the newspaper stood up against  racism in the national pastime. According to Rodney, the  Worker was the "conscience of journalism." 

In his autobiography, civil rights activist William L.  Patterson said that Rodney and the Worker "were second to no  other voices in the United States in the fight to get  Negroes on the rosters of Big League baseball clubs." David  Falkner, in his biography of Jackie Robinson, also  recognized Rodney's contributions. "I think Lester Rodney is  one of the unsung heroes of the effort to integrate  baseball," he said, "Rodney and the Worker were at this all  the way through the 1930s, and they never really let up." 

While there is agreement that the Worker played an active  role in breaking baseball's color line, there has thus far  been little attempt to identify what exactly the newspaper  did. A more thorough analysis is needed if we hope to  understand -- and to recognize -- what Mardo describes as  "The Daily Worker['] 10-year campaign to break down Jim Crow  baseball." Besides writing hundreds of articles and columns  over a decade, its sportswriters directly challenged the  baseball establishment, questioning league and team  executives in print and directly confronting owners,  demanding that they give tryouts to black players. In short,  the newspaper bluntly pointed out that the most American of  sports was undemocratic. And it chastised league executives  and team owners for praising the game as an embodiment of  the American dream while denying opportunities to black  players through outright discrimination. 

The newspaper's sarcastic and even belligerent actions  offended not just baseball's establishment but also many who  supported integration, including many black sportswriters.  These sportswriters may have agreed with the Communists but  shunned their support for fear of being red-baited -- a  tactic used by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis  and team owners, who dismissed the Worker's campaign to  integrate baseball as a Communist ploy. 

The Worker, the main organ for the Communist Party, was  truly an alternative press -- representing workers and not  corporations. Whereas other editors, reporters, and  columnists could not easily criticize the rich who  controlled the press, the Worker had no such restrictions.  It was not supported by advertising but by, in its own  words, "the nickels, dimes and dollars of the men and women  of labor."   There was no other daily like it in America.  Unlike other dailies, it was supported by membership dues --  not advertising. In addition, its content was different from  other daily newspapers. Ignoring the journalistic concept of  objectivity, the Worker presented white, communist  sympathizers an opportunity to rage at injustices against  blacks. Its circulation, which included foreign-language  editions, peaked at about 140,000 in the 1930s and then  after World War II -- not coincidentally, this period  coincided with the Worker's campaign against baseball's  color line. 

The Communist Party seized upon the issue of segregation in  baseball because it represented one of the more obvious  evidences of discrimination. The Worker's journalists  understood that ending discrimination in baseball could make  a truly revolutionary change in American society. While the  CP was certainly interested in using sports to advance its  own political philosophy, its most effective effort to  influence American society -- the campaign against  segregation in baseball -- emphasized democracy, not  communism. In addition, baseball, to the CP, represented all  that was wrong with American capitalism. 

As early as 1933, the Worker's Ben Field commented on the  injustice of racial segregation in major league baseball,  describing a scene at a Brooklyn Dodgers' game at Ebbets  Field, where blacks worked at the stadium but none took the  field. "You spot a few Negro fans. Negro workers make good  athletes. But where are the Negroes on the field?" Field  asked. "The big leagues will not admit Negro players. This  is something else to chalk up against capitalist-controlled  sports." 

However, the integration of baseball would not become a  significant issue in the Worker until the introduction of a  daily sports page in 1936. As with virtually all party  matters, the decision to focus on baseball's racial problem  had its origin in international party politics. In 1935, the  Seventh World Congress of the Communist International  encouraged the American Communist Party to focus attention  on the subject of capitalist sports in order to become more  popular in American society. Communist Party sportswriters  placed the U.S. professional sports establishment within the  framework of capitalist exploitation, declaring that  professional athletes, too, were workers, who labored but  did not receive a fair share of the fruits of their labor. 

In essence, the Worker's campaign to desegregate baseball  posited three arguments. First, blacks had proven their  worthiness to participate in American professional sports  through their success in the recently completed Summer  Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler's snubbing of Jesse Owens,  the black track star who had won four gold medals, provided  the CP a clarion call for their campaign against  discrimination in sports in general and baseball in  particular. Secondly, the CP staunchly opposed racism,  whether perpetuated by Nazi Germany or the United States.  "There is not much difference between the Hitler who, like  the coward he is, runs away before he will shake Jesse  Owens' hand and the American coward, who won't give the same  Negro equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities," the  Worker editorialized. And thirdly, the newspaper's  sportswriters argued that the addition of blacks would  improve the level of competition in the big leagues. In  short, discrimination did not merely prohibit blacks from  organized baseball but also detracted from the overall  quality of play. Worker sportswriters frequently denigrated  the caliber of play in the major leagues while praising the  talents of Negro League stars. The solution was obviouslet  blacks play in the majors. 

Copyright (c) 1999-2001 Kelly Rusanick and Chris Lamb. 


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