Sports Fans of the World Unite!
by Mickey Z.
November 8, 2003
Review of Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, The Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports by Irwin Silber (Temple University Press).
"We've got to get back to extended families. We need more people to talk to. I pretend to be interested in sports just to say 'good morning' to people."
-- Kurt Vonnegut
About six weeks ago, in his short-lived role as ESPN football analyst, right wing radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh had this to say about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, Donovan McNabb: "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."
"Where's the damn Young Communist League when you need them?" I cried.
I asked that question because I was reading Press Box Red, Irwin Silber's new book about Lester Rodney...sports editor at the Daily Worker for 25 years. As you may know, Rodney, the Daily Worker, the aforementioned YCL, and many other red-tinted folks all played important roles is forcing major league baseball to abandon its Jim Crow policy. But, before you dismiss this as a "mere" sports book that touches on a few social issues, be warned: "Press Box Red" covers an awful lot of ground and deftly defies categorization.
One needn't be a sports fan, history buff, or radical lefty to be dazzled by Silber's book. It's much more than Jackie Robinson and the battle for integration. It's the story of one man's life for sure, but it's also about Josh Gibson being the best catcher on the planet...and his being barred from the major leagues. It's about Henry Armstrong declaring, "You can't discriminate against a left hook." It's about Joe DiMaggio telling the press that Satchel Paige the greatest pitcher he had ever faced...and nobody except Rodney reporting it. It's about journalism, politics, and, most of all, sports in American society. "Press Box Red" is also about the Left looking down its nose at sports and sports fans...then and now.
When the Daily Worker initiated its sports section in 1935, it did so with the following explanation:
"It happens that baseball is the American national game. I would say that nine out of every ten America workers follow it intensely, as well as other sports. You can condemn them for it, if you are built that way, and you can call baseball a form of bourgeois opium for the masses. But that doesn't get around the fact that...the vast ocean of Americans of whom we are yet a minority, adore baseball. Are we going to maintain our isolation and make Americans stop their baseball before we will condescend to explain Communism to them? When you run the news of a strike alongside the news of a baseball game, you are making Americans workers feel at home. It gives them the feeling that Communism is nothing strange or foreign. Let's loosen up. Let's prove that one can be a human being as well as a Communist."
Lester Rodney (still alive and kicking in his 90s) is a New Yorker I can relate to but also someone who lived in a New York I never experienced. He has a passion for sports...despite the apolitical millionaires who play the games. One passage illustrates this fervor...and requires no prior sports fandom or knowledge. It revolves around Brooklyn Dodger Carl Furillo declaring, "I ain't gonna play with no nigger," when Jackie Robinson joined the team in 1947. Rodney has us fast forward to an " important game in a close race" against the Braves two years later. It's a scoreless tie in the top of the fifth with the Braves batting...Jim Russell on first, one out. Clint Conatser drives one in the right center gap. Furillo, owner of the best arm in baseball, catches up to the ball about 380 feet from home plate as Russell chugs around the bases.
"Freeze the action for a moment," Rodney suggests. "The long-legged Russell is in full cry, tearing through third in a wide turn. Conatser digs towards second. Robinson eases out some fifty feet into the outfield, half-facing Furillo. Shortstop (Pee Wee) Reese moves to cover second. First baseman Gil Hodges moves into position to possibly cut off the throw to the plate. Catcher Roy Campanella, the team's second black player, who came aboard in 1948, waits slightly up the third base line. (Pitcher Preacher) Roe ambles from the mound to back up the plate. It's the full panorama of baseball, a team game, in a moment that no television camera can encompass."
When we unfreeze, Furillo cuts loose with a throw "that bullets into Robinson's glove, head high, slightly to the right, making it unnecessary for him to pivot his feet before throwing." Robinson fires home to Campanella. Russell is out. The next batter pops up. The inning and the threat are history. Furillo jogs in from the outfield as Robinson, Roe, and Campanella wait for him at the lip of the dugout. The four men embrace. "Rodney recalls leaning out of the press box "to watch them descend into the dugout together, then turn my gaze to the people in the stands, those raucous, salty, kidding, good-natured, integrated Ebbets Fields stands."
It took seven more years for the Brooklyn Dodgers to finally beat the hated Yankees in the World Series...but when they did, Furillo greeted Jackie and his wife Rachel at the celebratory party with an emotional cheek-to-cheek hug, crying, "We did it, we did it."
They did it, all right. So what about the rest of us?
To paraphrase the Daily Worker: Let's loosen up. Let's prove that one can be a human being as well as a radical (or progressive, leftist, activist, vegan, environmentalist, atheist, anarchist, Green, or whatever).
(Postscript: When asked by the Village Voice to comment on Rush Limbaugh's recent outburst, Rodney offered one of the more interesting replies: "Of course a lot of people, myself included, rooted for black ballplayers because they were black. I don't know why that should be considered a controversial statement. That leads, inevitably, to overrating certain players. I'm not defending Limbaugh's politics, but I think he just said out loud what some people were thinking. I don't see anything particularly wrong with it.")
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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