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Coomunists Helped Integrate Baseball

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When Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers played his first game on April 15, 1947, it broke major league baseball's color barrier. Sixty five years later, the story remains largely restricted to Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' president who signed the ballplayer.

But the story of the integration of baseball cannot fully be understood without including the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper in New York City.

Worker sports editor Lester Rodney first called for the end of the color line in a column on August 16, 1936. Rodney said that black ballplayers would improve the quality of play in the major leagues and he appealed to readers to demand that the national pastime--and in particular, the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers, to admit black ballplayers. Under the headline, "Jim Crow Baseball Must End," Rodney wrote, "Demand Americanism in baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white stars."

This began the newspapers campaign to end baseball's color line.

Over the next decade, the Worker published hundreds of articles on the issue--far more than any other newspaper. The newspaper was not merely the most vocal critic of segregated baseball among the country's newspapers, it was the only daily that gave the color line any sustained coverage. "We were the only non-black newspaper writing about (baseball's color line) for a long time," Rodney said.

The Worker openly challenged baseball's establishment to permit black players; condemned white owners and managers for perpetuating the color ban, and mainstream sportswriters for their silence; organized petition drives and distributed anti-discrimination pamphlets; publicized the exploits of Negro League stars; informed readers of the successes in the campaign to end segregated baseball; and pressured major league team owners to give tryouts to black ballplayers.

The baseball establishment criticized the communists as "agitators" and "social-minded drum beaters." This allowed the campaign to integrate baseball to be characterized as a communist front, thus making it less acceptable to mainstream America.  

In his biography of Jackie Robinson, however, author Arnold Rampersad wrote, "The most vigorous efforts (to integrate baseball) came from the communist press, including the Daily Worker." William L. Patterson, himself a prominent black communist said that Rodney and the Worker "were second to no other voices in the United States in the fight to get (blacks) on the rosters of big-league baseball clubs."

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The Worker pounded away at the sense of injustice and apathy that surrounded baseball, shamed the sport into defending itself 
against racism, and educated-and even convinced--many readers 
about the need for integration in the national pastime.

The newspaper recruited progressive politicians who introduced legislation to end racial discrimination and, if necessary, force the Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers to sign blacks, and by social activists who protested outside major league ballparks. Trade unions, representing millions of workers, sent petitions calling for the end of segregated baseball to the offices of the baseball commissioner, league executives, and team owners. 

The mainstream New York City newspapers ignored the historical significance of Robinson's first game. Romney, however, recognized the game as further progress in the campaign for racial equality that had intensified during World War II. 

"But it's hard this Opening Day to write straight baseball and not stop to mention the wonderful fact of Jackie Robinson," Rodney wrote. "You tell yourself it shouldn't be especially wonderful in America, no more wonderful for instance than Negro soldiers being with us on the way overseas through submarine infested waters in 1943."

Chris Lamb. a professor of communication at the College of Charleston, is the author of Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball. 

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Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC, he teaches courses in journalism and media studies. He has written hundreds of newspaper columns that have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles (more...)
 

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