A Long-Ball Hitter Passes the Ball
By Frank Fried
I am writing this piece after reading the NY Times’ obituary of Lester Rodney where both the role of the Daily Worker and his role as its sports writer were given their due credit in the fight to integrate major league baseball.
Irwin Silber’s 1999 book “Press Box Red” had previously told Lester’s story in depth while Dave Zirin’s recent articles rounded out his significance to sports in a more contemporary fashion. I recommend all three of the above, they are worth reading.
My contribution, taking a somewhat different slant, is from someone who had a personal relationship with Lester over the last 30 years of his life.
Of course, living 98 years, Lester had quite a history. He was both proud and unapologetic about being a radical from the 1930s and about his role in providing the Daily Worker a first-class sports page with a reputation far beyond the political influence of the newspaper itself.
I remember hearing all about Lester long before I met him with friends in the old days often begrudgingly acknowledging that, “In spite of other problems with the Daily Worker, they had a great sports page.” Nonetheless, though Lester was recognized for his individual accomplishments, he and the Daily Worker are forever linked.
He was definitely proud about what he did but he was also more than a little bothered. That is, he was embarrassed by the fact that he failed to recognize the crimes of Stalinism until the 20th Congress revelations by Khrushchev in 1956.
I, myself, often thought Lester was reticent to speak of his early role and that of the Daily Worker in the integration of baseball because of his original blind, misplaced faith in the Soviet Union and their covering up of the crimes of Stalinism.
History has rendered its verdict on Stalinism in the Soviet Union but a truthful rendering must also manage to recognize the significant role of Lester and the Daily Worker in the struggle to desegregate baseball.
Our Personal Years
I first met Lester when I moved to California in 1979. I do not remember how I met him. It was either through Stan and Mary Weir or through Jimmy Weinstein who were all mutual friends. The Weirs were long-time socialists with a history in the Trotskyist movement and who had a wide circle of friends from the old days among the radical milieu. Lester’s wife, Claire, and Mary Weir were both professors at Cal State University, Long Beach, and formed a close friendship through their work in the teachers’ union.
Weinstein was publisher of In These Times, which in its early beginnings sought to be a catalyst for a new emerging socialist democratic movement. For several years, Lester was a frequent contributor and supporter of its general aims.
So, Lester and I became good friends both because of a series of interlocking personal relationships and other mutual interests not all of which were politics. Among these were the card game of bridge and especially tennis, which we played frequently up until around ten years ago.
Lester was 16 years my senior but was still a good tennis player. We started playing when he was 68 and I was in my early 50s.
We played a lot but I never won more than four games in a set and that was only once. He was very consistent and very agile for a man of his age. In fact, he was an active player on the senior circuit and from the age of 80 was number two or three nationally. When he hit 90, he was actually ranked number one for a few years.
I never found out how Lester managed to finally beat his two most ardent octogenarian competitors. Maybe they got sick or maybe Lester just physically overcame them once he entered his ninth decade. Let’s face it, not too many of us last that long much less being so active. Lester paid lots of attention to his physical conditioning but he finally gave up the rackets at 94. I had given them up long before.
This athleticism on the tennis court was reflection of his tenacity, determination and attempt to be contemporary in all aspects of life till the very end.
He and Claire were also both avid bridge players and we shared some happy times together. I mention this because it was one of the few things my first wife Francois could still do while suffering from a degenerative illness. The Rodney’s went out of their way to accommodate Francois’ condition by more often coming to our house than we to theirs.
I never forgot that warm gesture of unsolicited kindness on their part. But, of course, politics for us was the binding tie in our relationship.
The conflicting origins of our socialist beliefs eventually narrowed as we both shared a common assessment of events that occurred much later in our lives. For Lester, his biggest change in consciousness occurred after the Khrushchev revelations shattered many of his illusions in the Soviet Union and its leadership.
For me, the struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party and the subsequent formation of the American Socialist in 1954 revealed that the party-building forms and dogmas that were part of my tradition were actually more of a hindrance to the formation of a democratic left. Our mutual reassessments from these sharply divergent tendencies in the workers’ movement provided us an even closer bond of friendship that endured until his death.
Lester very early on described himself as a democratic socialist as counter posed to Irving Howe whom he described as a social democrat. I shared his assessment on Howe but we both still recognized our own differences on the role of the Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, Lester’s commitment to socialism was deep and his approach was non-sectarian including being open to the ideas of the far left.
Lester Gets “Discovered”
Coincidentally, Lester moved from southern California to northern California within two or three months of my own move from there to Oakland. We restarted within two or three months a friendship which first began eleven years earlier in southern California.
Lester’s inclination towards caution of revealing his past became more difficult when he moved to Rossmoor, a small retirement community of 8,000, where everyone knows something about everybody.
In fact, Lester’s comfortable anonymity became impossible to maintain once his past associations were “outed” in a sense during the 1997 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s appearance as the first Black player in major league baseball. He was eagerly sought out by a press that treated him very favorably. This included ESPN, CNN and other major outlets.
From then on there was a trickle of mobile TV units showing up at Rossmoor, interviewing Lester on his recollections as a sports writer.
The last major interview I knew about was in 2008 on the 70th anniversary of the Schmeling-Louis fight. Lester was the last surviving sports writer who was in attendance. Never one to seek publicity neither was Lester shy about sharing his experiences if he was approached.
Surprised by the new-found notoriety examining his role in integrating baseball, Lester was also quietly gratified that he got some recognition. He actually became somewhat of a “celebrity” among his contemporaries in Rossmoor.
He was an active member of the Rossmoor Democratic Club in Walnut Creek, California, a Club that also invited California Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo on more than one occasion.
A few years later, I tried to organize a gathering before the baseball season where Lester would give us the “Rodney” outlook. Much to my dismay, I found the jocks and politicos that I was planning to invite did not know of Lester.
History is very cruel and it would be unfortunate if the man who did so much to integrate baseball and for the paper he wrote to be so forgotten. It would be a travesty. But it would not be the first nor would it be the last.
His Last Years
I had numerous political discussions with Lester on a number of subjects but one or two stand out. I was originally stunned when I asked which ballplayers were sympathetic in the 1930 and 1940s to the radical movement. His answer still shocks me to this day.
He answered “None.” Then I broadened it out to all sports figures and he answered again, “None.” Lester mentioned that Red Rolfe, Yankee third baseman was an avid New Dealer but that was about as Left as anyone he could name in sports. This confirmed for me what I had long suspected; that the radical movement may have romanticized a bit the response of American society to the crisis of the 1930s because if the working class and society in general had been looking for radical options, it would have expressed itself more broadly also in the world of professional sports.
I think I bored down on Lester a couple of times on this subject and he neither agreed nor disagreed but only commented that most athletes came from small towns. I never thought that was an adequate response but we never fully completed our conversation on the meaning of this disconnect between the world of politics and the world of sports.
To the very end, Lester was a keen observer of the contemporary sports scene and continually deflated my optimism about the potential of the San Francisco Bay Area teams. However, in all fairness, Lester did have a strong opinion about the 2002 Raiders who he thought got a bad call in a playoff game and would have otherwise won both the division championship and Super Bowl.
The last time I saw Lester was several months before his death. He was at my home in July 2009 for an event benefitting the South African socialist magazine Amandla. Lester was introduced and received well-deserved applause and acknowledgement. It would be his last at a public event.
Lester and my wife Alice’s birthday are on the same day and we always celebrated together with either a lunch or a dinner. Our last time together was for his 98th birthday.
We were supposed to have lunch again in September but he was sick and then I had open-heart surgery so we never did manage to get together again.
In the last year and a half, I have written two obituaries of close friends for Against the Current. One for Studs Terkel, one for Les Depres and now one for Lester Rodney. All were giants.
I have lost a good friend and those who struggle for social justice anywhere have lost a soldier who was a general in his field when it counted. Lester was a long-ball hitter.