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