In his conclusion to an April 2013 column on baseball icon Jackie Robinson, senior MLB.com correspondent Hal Bodley observes that “Forty-two will live forever” – a reverential reference to Robinson’s Dodger jersey number, retired in 1997, 50 years after his storied breach of big-league baseball’s color bar.
The reverential treatment Robinson commands some 40 years after his death is of course justified; for in the wake of a single call-up from the minors, Jim Crow segregation was dealt a cultural blow that helped clear the way for the Civil Rights Movement and two decades of Supreme Court racial remedies.
But as with even the most prideful of America’s racial accomplishments – from the 13th Amendment to the election of a mixed-race president – the popular mythology surrounding baseball’s paradigm shift is often simplistic and misleading.
This is nowhere clearer than in the repackaging of events offered in the film 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, screenwriter/producer/director Brian Helgeland’s erstwhile effort to help us remember what happened and why.
The problem with 42 is not what it has to say. The problem is what it cannot: That an unflaggingly Communist newspaper played a supporting role in the dismantlement of the National Pastime’s color-based infrastructure.
Ten years prior to the quixotic narrative portrayed in 42 was a page in the August 16, 1936, edition of the Daily Worker exhorting baseball fans to leverage their influence in the interest of racial equality.
Written by the Worker’s dogged sports editor Lester Rodney, the piece was a communist’s diatribe against owner-sanctioned segregation: “Fans, it’s up to you! Tell the big league magnates that you’re sick of the poor pitching in the American League … Big league ball is on the downgrade. You pay the high prices. Demand better ball. Demand Americanism in baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white stars.”
Rodney’s call for direct fan involvement was a study in Worker-style practicality, linking quality of play with the burgeoning and untapped talent pool present in the minor and Negro Leagues.
But driving the attempt to mobilize fans was what Lester called “Americanism” (see unfettered democracy). Thus was the Party’s mandate for change.
Committed as the Worker was to its vision of an engaged and patri
And African American publishers likewise shunned the Worker. Already marginalized, an alliance with avowed leftists would be to court even more white ill will.
The Worker’s greatest contribution to a truly level playing field was its disproportionate influence on entre
otic fan base, it was virtually alone in its realization.
For most of its 34-year run it was the primary (at points only) white-owned newspaper consistently voicing the anti-segregationist point of view. nched club owners, Dodgers chief executive Branch Rickey – the owner who famously awarded Robinson a major league contract – among them.
This was achieved in part by Lester Rodney’s capacity to mobilize readers beyond the Worker fold; but also his ability to gain the trust of a handful of white major leaguers and managers who themselves began to decry ownership’s racist grip on the sport. The Daily Worker’s demise came in early 1958, 34 years to the day after its founding and 11 years after Jackie Robinson first took the field.
Disillusioned by newly confirmed evidence of Soviet atrocities before and after World War II, and confronted with raging McCarthyism at home, the paper’s senior staff chose to fold its tent rather than continue to identify with a national party in chaos.
We should hope that the omission of the Daily Worker from a mainly conscientious 42 is but a twist in the service of movie marketability and political liability.
But more worrisome is the ongoing “under-telling” of so much of progressive history, in this instance the inconvenient truth that behind Robinson’s triumph over systemic evil is a cast of committed thousands, some of them card-carrying Communists.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2013
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