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.]
The Daily Worker's Fight Against White Baseball
[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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