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The red who helped desegregate baseball

Review by Peter DiLeo | February 13, 2004 | Page 9

Irwin Silber, Press Box Red. Temple University Press, 2003, 248 pages, $19.95.

IN 1997, baseball teams across the U.S. celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson smashing the sport's color line. But the campaign to desegregate baseball actually began years before--with the Communist Party (CP) in the late 1930s.

Press Box Red documents the work of Lester Rodney, the sports editor for the CP's Daily Worker newspaper for more than 20 years. While the book is first and foremost a history of Rodney's efforts, parts of this book are of particular interest to revolutionary socialists.

For one, the whole strategy of starting a sports section (and agitating for integration) were parts of the Communist Party's "Popular Front" shift in 1935. The Daily Worker was reconceived from an organ addressing the party to one that appealed to a broader mass of Americans sympathetic to issues of radical social change.

Almost overnight the CP went from labeling sports an "opiate of the masses" to seeing it an important component of people's lives. And the Daily Worker's sports coverage--and in particular its agitation for integration--was seen as a way to aid the Communist Party's organizing efforts in Black communities.

On August 13, 1936, the paper ran the first article on segregation in baseball under the headline "Outlawed by Baseball!" That kicked off a year-long campaign on the issue.

The other interesting aspect of the fight for integration was that it illustrates how a revolutionary paper can concretely serve as an organizing tool. The move for integration of baseball began purely as an agitation campaign. But Rodney's editorials were eventually used as a centerpiece to a massive petitioning campaign.

First the CP, and later countless unions, began a petition drive that generated 2 million signatures in support of baseball's desegregation. Press Box Red not only sheds light on the fight to desegregate baseball but provides insight into understanding the application--and limitations--of the Communist's Popular Front strategy.

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