Tagged: Lester Rodney

George Michael – Baseball Historian – RIP

The prominent television sportscaster, perhaps the last “up-and-coming” Top 40 disc jockey at the height of the genre, and onetime NHL announcer, George Michael, passed away this morning in Washington after a two-year fight with leukemia. He was 70 years old.

Less known about George was that he, like so many people I’ve discussed here in the last few months, had a remarkably specific and utterly satisfying contribution to the game we love. Nellie King has been a fixture of Pittsburgh player, reporter, game announcer, and now author. With only 25 major league games under his belt, Dirk Hayhurst has probably written the best baseball book of the young century. Lester Rodney, who I memorialized here on Tuesday, was perhaps the only white journalist of the 1930’s and 1940’s who not only pointed out the unstated ban on black players but tirelessly advocated for its repudiation.
And now there’s George, who for all the eccentric devotion of his program “The Sports Machine” to rodeo, or (when it was hardly known to exist north of the Carolinas, NASCAR), was an ardent baseball researcher and historian. He had a general interest in vintage baseball game photography, but, like all of us, you could cut to the chase with him and quickly discover his exact, precise fascination with… slides into the plate or the bases.
It was George’s self-appointed duty to identify every participant in every such photograph, and the game depicted. He focused on the days before uniform numbers, when often you couldn’t see the runner’s face, the catcher’s back was turned to you, the uniforms were barely identifiable (if that), and even the stadiums were hard to pin down. He was published on the subject in a Society for American Baseball Research Journal a few years back, and his walk-through of his step-by-step process for finding clues was not only fascinating, but terrifically instructional to anybody trying to figure out the identities in any vintage baseball photography (when logos are not visible, you can most easily narrow down years and teams, even in black-and-white photos, by whether the caps and socks were dark, light, or striped; also don’t forget to judge where the throw originated – was it from an outfielder, or was it from the catcher? In the latter case you’re most likely dealing with a stolen base attempt – and probably a guy with a few steals under his belt).
I remember once getting a large package from George containing a series of photocopies of the top ten or twenty photos that were giving him the hardest time. Inevitably he had already found the era, at least one of the teams, possibly the ballpark. One, I believe, he had found to be from a 1911 A’s-Red Sox game, in Philadelphia, in the sixth inning. The third baseman was Home Run Baker but the runner tearing into third was problematic because the face was partially obscured and, incredibly, there had been two different plays made at third during the inning.
So if you think of George’s untimely passing this holiday season, remember that for all his larger-than-life tv persona, and the seemingly endless rodeo highlights — he was truly one of us, and his hobby underscored how otherwise diverse a crowd “we” are.

Lester Rodney Has Died

Lester Rodney, the onetime sportswriter who in the 1930’s and 1940’s was one of the fiercest and most insistent white advocates of the integration of major league baseball, died on Sunday, his family has announced. He was 98 years old.

Rodney’s advocacy found its forum in the pages of The Daily Worker, the house organ of the American Communist Party, from which he resigned in 1958. In 1936, he talked the paper into changing its paucity of sports coverage into a full-fledged section, of which he was hired as editor, even though he was not yet a member of the party. His writings consistently underscored a parallel few were willing to recognize, especially in sports: that the growing marginalization of the Jews and other religious and social groups by the Nazis in Germany and later Europe, had a too-close-for-comfort parallel in this country’s marginalization of African-Americans. 
In a less violent but no less prejudiced aspect, Rodney noted that most Americans were appalled – or at least discomfited – at the thought that deference to Hitler led to our American team leaving Marty Glickman off the Jesse Owens-led relay squad at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But few seemed disturbed that America was denying its greatest black baseball players an opportunity to reach whatever success they could achieve here.
Given how the color line was ultimately broken, it was particularly ironic that Rodney aimed much of his criticism at his favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. As early as 1938 Rodney was advocating a baseball opportunity for a young multi-sport athlete from Southern California named Jackie Robinson. The writer would be completing his honorable military service in the South Pacific when Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league contract for the 1946 season, nearly a decade after Rodney had begun to champion the cause most other white writers – and even fans – ignored.
Moving to California about the same time the Dodgers did, Rodney became, of all things, the religion editor of The Long Beach Press-Telegram. Ever the athlete, he was still playing competitive tennis at the age of 87. His children report that he passed away on the morning of the 20th, at home, and in what may be no surprise to anyone who knew him or knew of him, “he was with it until just before the end and thanks to hospice he had a pain free week.”
Robinson’s role in the integration of the game is obvious and Rickey’s has been lauded. Pressure from the great black sportswriters of the ’30s and ’40s, like Sam Lacy of The Baltimore Afro-American, is even acknowledged. Lester Rodney – writing in the most unlikely setting and advocating what was then the most unlikely of societal changes – was as important as any of them to the eventual righting of this extraordinary wrong.
LESTER RODNEY, 1911-2009