Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lester Rodney: He Helped Get Jackie in the Game

Lester Rodney, the sports editor and columnist for the American Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker who crusaded to end segregation in major league baseball in the 1930s and '40s, has died. He was 98.

Mr. Rodney died Sunday December 20th at his home in a retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., said his daughter, Amy Rodney.

Beginning in the decade before Jackie Robinson suited up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Rodney began pressing for the desegregation of baseball via columns and stories in the Daily Worker's sports pages. By joining with the black press, Rodney was able to implement a plan to get a black player on a major league roster.

He called the ban against blacks in the major leagues "un-American" and "the crime of the big leagues."

During World War II, Mr. Rodney served as an Army combat medic in the Pacific. But he was back home in New York to cover Robinson's debut as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947.

"It's hard this Opening Day to write straight baseball and not stop to mention the wonderful fact of Jackie Robinson," Mr. 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."

Clare, Rodney's wife of 58 years, died in 2004.

Writing for the Daily Worker: “I ran the entire sports department, including laying out the sports section and then I had to get my ass to the ball games, and so on and prove myself as a sportswriter. At first, my main objective was to show that we were a real sports section. Then, the one scoop we had never covered smacked me right in the face. No other papers would talk about the amazing fact that halfway through the 20th century in the land of the free, qualified and over-qualified baseball players couldn’t participate in our national pastime. And it was our national pastime back then much more than it is today. There was no NBA or NFL at the level it’s at today. There were no video games, no Internet, no cable TV. If the Dodgers were playing in Brooklyn and a truck pulled up next to you, it would be unthinkable to not hear Red Barber on the radio or people would find it peculiar. Baseball was huge back then. No other paper said anything about the fact that the black players were locked out of major league baseball. If the Negro leagues had a game in town, you could read about the game, but nothing was ever mentioned that these players were not allowed to play in the majors. Did this mean that all of the sportswriters in New York during this time were racists? No, they were ordinary people, but they knew what they could turn into their paper and if they wrote something saying things like, ‘why aren’t these guys playing in the big leagues?’ their editors would have asked them something like, “why are you bringing this stuff up here?’ That was the culture of the times. Racism was accepted. And that was one of the things that attracted me to the Communists. What the Communists were going down in the South was working for black voting rights, putting their bodies were their mouths were.”

The Ban: “I talk to my granddaughter’s friends and I try to make a connection to what happened back then compared to now. I tell them ‘look at Barry Bonds today’, the superstar (this interview was in 2004 right before the steroids hearing). Supposedly everyone knows how great he is, just the same way that people back then knew how good Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were, but they weren’t allowed to play. Unspeakable! It’s dastardly and un-American. Ridiculous! But that’s the way things were back then. Josh Gibson, the greatest catcher who ever put on a uniform, never played an inning of big league baseball, and he died in a bitter, drunken wreck. You know, we’ve really gotten off the hook a little light about this time in our history. And so this is what motivated me to write for the Daily Worker. People will ask me, ‘were you doing this to get the Negroes to join the Communist Party?’ No. I was doing it personally because basically I wanted the ban to end. I was a baseball fan since I was six years old it was the game I loved. I wanted the best players in the game to show their stuff to America. I never met a black player who told me he wanted to stay in the Negro Leagues. That’s ridiculous. If you feel you’re the best violinist in the country and you live in Paducah, you don’t want to stay in Paducah. Of course, you want to play at Carnegie Hall, for the money and the acclaim.”

Jackie Robinson: “Oh, the things Jackie had to go through, you can’t imagine. First of all, he was hit by pitchers twice as much as any other player in baseball. He was called all kinds of names. The first time they played in Philadelphia, they threw a black cat out of their dugout. Why didn’t he say, ‘hey, who needs this, to hell with it, I’m outta here.’ Some people are thrust into historic roles without their understanding, but Jackie was an intensely bright guy and he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what his role was and that’s why he took all this stuff. It has to be the single most heroic act ever performed in the history of sports in this country. I think I can say that. He made a real difference in America.”

The Best Managers He Ever Saw: “Stengel and Durocher are my top managers. They’re the only ones I saw that really know how to manage in the World Series. They wouldn’t hesitate to yank their ace pitcher in the fourth inning or to use an ace in relief. They knew it was a different ball game in the postseason. Charlie Dressen was a good regular season manager, like Dusty Baker, who hasn’t yet shown that he can win a World Series, but managing successfully in the big games defines the great ones.”

Leo Durocher: “I was talking to the Lip. I was chatting with Leo before a game and he suddenly turns to me and says, ‘you know, Rodney—for a #@%!# Communist, you sure know your baseball.”

Don Newcombe: “Newcombe was a corporation guy and he still works for the Dodgers today. But, he knew what what’s going on. His father was a union organizer. He didn’t beat the Yankees often in World Series play and that haunted him. The first time he pitched against the Yankees in his rookie year in ’49, it was a 0-0 game until the bottom of the ninth, when Tommy Heinrich hit one out and beat him.”

McCarthyism: “They didn’t go after me, because I was right out in the open. Many of my friends went down, but I wasn’t a screen writer using another name. As a baseball writer, they didn’t go after me and probably didn’t think of me as a serious Communist. They would kid around it jovially, say things like, ‘hey, does Marx follow the box scores?” Writing about baseball wasn’t perceived as doing politics. They didn’t see me as a threat.”

Joe DiMaggio: “He was a different guy. During his first two years up, before the aura of superstardom socked in on him, he was more convivial. After that, he was very closed-mouthed. You know he never certainly joined in with the rowdies like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, but importantly, he was always curt and monosyllabic with reporters and he became mean-spirited. He was known to be a cheap sonofabitch, a notorious note tipper, and at the end he was over-selling his signature, all that stuff. But, I remember a different DiMaggio. During his first year, I was asked to take Joe down to see a bunch of kids from the International Workers Order, a left wing group. But, Joe agreed to show up and throw out the first ball for their tournament. And he enjoyed it and he really mingled with the kids. He was great. So, something happened to him somewhere along the way. He changed.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Yo, Meathead!

Let me hand it to Ed for holding the site together while I was off in la-la land. Wasn’t that a great article on Tim Lincecum? Lucky Ed got to meet the Freak!

As for me, you could probably tell from my last post that I was kind of fed up with my teams. Therefore, I stayed away from blogging for a bit, because I didn’t have anything positive to say, and I really didn’t want to drown myself in all that negativity. Hearing the latest about Tiger Woods did little to restore my faith.

Now I’m back, but it’s not to be positive. After having experienced the Giants football game—and the end of their once-promising season—yesterday, I am so filled with frustration that I have to let it all out here.

How could any team with so much on the line—postseason play, the closing of Giants Stadium—just completely not show up? It is inexplicable to me. The Giants had to win to stay in contention for a playoff berth. Even though Dallas and Green Bay both won, keeping them ahead of Big Blue for the week, I wouldn’t be so sure that they will both win next week. The Packers play Arizona, and the Cowboys play Philadelphia—don’t be surprised if the Iggles whip the ’Boys to prove that they deserve the division crown.

The Giants were a disgrace, and I woke up this morning embarrassed to be a fan of theirs. I’m sure this will pass at the end of the season, but for now? Phooey! There are not enough words to describe just how bad the Jints were, but to give you a hint: they were booed off the field at halftime by their own fans in the last game to ever be played at Giants Stadium. And this was in front of the many Giants greats who showed up for the stadium’s closing!

I know a lot of people want to blame someone—I do, too. So here’s who I think is to blame.

First, let me say unequivocally that I don’t blame Eli Manning. Was he great this year? No, but his numbers were the best of his career, and I think he is showing that he is a pretty darned good QB and still improving. I know a lot of people say he’s awful, but along with his ring, he has a Super Bowl MVP, so we are not exactly talking Trent Dilfer here. Also, it’s hard to blame the offense when the defense can’t get off the field. But we’ll come to the defense in a minute.

The receiving corps, which everyone said would be weakness this year without Plaxico Burress, has actually been a great strength. Steve Smith has broken a couple of Giants receiving records, and rookie Hakeem Nicks looks like the real deal. Mario Manningham is fine, but he could have better hands. Nevertheless, all told, the Giants receivers have been pretty good, as well.

The only aspect of the offense that needs a lot of work is the running game. Not only does this mean that perhaps Ahmad Bradshaw should be the feature back next year (Brandon Jacobs only had one—yes, one—yard on six carries yesterday), but maybe the offensive line could use a tune-up. I like the O-line, but those guys sure didn’t do much for the run. Granted, they had a few injuries, but still…

I will briefly touch on special teams by saying that maybe it’s time for Jeff Feagles to retire. He has been a fantastic asset to the Giants over his career with them, but in 2009, he had some really bad punting games, and the Giants D has been unable to stop anyone on a short field this season.

Ah, the Giants defense. “What defense?” you might ask, and rightfully so, because it is one of the worst defenses in the NFL this year. In one statistic that says it all, the Giants are last in preventing a touchdown when the opponent is inside the red zone. Wellington Mara would surely roll over in his grave if he could have observed the defense the past few months.

Now defense is supposed to be a Giants hallmark. Any team that won anything for Big Blue was always built around defense. So it is really inexcusable for the D to have been so very bad—and it was bad on all three levels. The defensive line didn’t have a pass rush and couldn’t stop the run—except against the hapless Redskins. The linebackers were fair to middling, and I don’t want to hear that it was because Antonio Pierce was injured. The backers were only average even while A.P. was healthy.

The Giants secondary deserves a paragraph all its own. But what can I say except that it stank? Yes, there were injuries there, too, but every team has injuries. They do not explain why the defensive backs failed to make an appearance against Carolina yesterday—or against anyone else earlier in the season. The obvious one to point fingers at for the defensive failures is rookie defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. Despite the fact that I think he should go, he probably deserves one more chance—albeit on a tight leash.

As for Tom Coughlin, it speaks volumes that he let the players know how important the game was and they still laid an egg. Are the players starting to tune out Coughlin? Well, the man won a Super Bowl and had the G-men in the playoffs the last four years in a row. He probably deserves to stay one more year, too, as long as things get turned around.

I saw a comment today by a Carolina fan after an article about the game—amidst all the crying and moaning by Giants fans, the Panthers fan said something about perhaps giving Carolina credit because they played a great game. But no matter how great the Panthers played, the Giants had so much more riding on the outcome. If Big Blue had shown up yesterday the way they showed up the previous week against Washington, it wouldn’t have mattered how the Panthers played. The Giants would have won.

Instead, they get to play Minnesota in a meaningless game for them and then go home until Fall 2010. It sure would be ironic if the defense came to play next week, when it doesn’t matter anymore. They might as well not show up, since it seems like most of them started their offseason with two weeks to go anyway.

I expect Dallas fans to laugh it up, but there’s no way they’ll win it all, and the Cowboys will be lucky to even win a playoff game, which they haven’t done since 1996. The Giants have won a Super Bowl a lot more recently than that! As for the Eagles, they sure looked good this year, but I doubt they’ll take it all, either, against the real powerhouses like the Colts and Patriots, or even the Saints and Vikings. So good luck to the Giants’ division rivals—give me a call when you actually win something.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidaze from Ed & Meat on the Street!

It was a fun and interesting sports year in 2009. What will happen in 2010? Will Tiger get back on the course or the broads? Will the Yankees buy an entirely new team for '10? Will I meet The Freak again and will he win another Cy Young? Will the Mets ever land a quality free agent again? Will California divorces kill both the Dodgers and the Padres? And can the Colts go door-to-door and win the Super Bowl undefeated? Can the Lakers repeat? Will the San Jose Sharks finally get to a Cups Final? Will the Rams, Lions and Browns improve next season? And maybe, most importantly, will there be another excited year of great games and emerging stars?
..........stay tuned! And thanks for being a reader of Ed & Meat on the Street!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I Meet The Freak

As a rule, I don’t like to bother celebrities when I see them in public, but every once in a while I’ll run into someone and I can’t resist. I’ll always approach them very respectfully, asking them like royalty if it’s okay to spend a moment with them and usually it’s a 50/50 proposition.

I’ve encountered some athletes in the past who were less than a pleasure to meet. Barry Bonds was considerably less than nice, to say the least, and other people like golfer Greg Norman, sports announcer Jim Rome, HOF pitcher Goose Gossage and of course, Willie Mays (who I tried to interview in 1999) were legendarily rude and fulfilled stereotypes about pro athletes acting boorish.

But, when I ran into double-Cy Young award winner San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum the other day at a Starbucks in the Fillmore of The City, it was a thrill and a refreshing chance encounter with a smart, engaging individual pausing to talk to an avid fan. (Even though I am Dodgers die hard for 40 years).

I approached Lincecum and told him that I was pro-420 and he instantly replied in muted tones. But what he said was off the record, so I can’t say anything more. (If you didn’t already know, he got busted for having a small amount of marijuana a few weeks back.)

While I was chatting up The Freak (one of Lincecum’s nicknames) and bombarding him with questions in rapid succession, I just got the feeling that Tim plays baseball just like he’d ride his skateboard or bicycle. Here I was, a supposed grown man drooling to talk to him and the impression he gave me was “it’s no big deal.” I even sensed a little sympathy from him for a middle-aged guy enthralled by a kid who can throw in high 90’s and make all-star hitters look like little leaguers.

My overall impression is that Lincecum sees himself as basically someone who just got really good at throwing a ball, but somebody who’s not even 100% onboard with the lore and wow surrounding major league baseball. When a 51-year-old male walks up to Tim and starts treating him like the Pope, Lincecum is amused, but no longer surprised anymore. Two Cy Youngs will do that.
I asked him if he gets noticed in public more all the time, especially now after the two

Cy Youngs. “It’s so random. I’ll be at places where I’d think I’d be noticed and no one knows who I am. Other times I’ll be walking down the street and people will come out of their homes to talk to me, which is strange. But, it’s all cool.”
In one word, Tim is just cool. Wearing a wrinkled t-shirt, flip flops and shorts, sending texts on his iPhone and drinking one of those caramel, whip cream covered coffee things. (I call those concoctions “dessert camouflaged as coffee.”)
I did tell The Franchise (another one of his nicknames) that he only has to win three more Cy Youngs in a row to set the record. “Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson won it four times in a row,” I said. “So that’s the benchmark, I guess.” “Cool,” Lincecum offered.

Then I decided to show off and run some other baseball factoids by him. “Koufax, Palmer, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens have all also won the Cy Young back-to-back like you,” I offered. “Nice,” he said. (Later I looked it up and I was correct, although I did miss Denny McClain, who won it in 1968 and again in 1969, a co-owner with Mike Cuellar from Baltimore—the only time there have been two co-winners.)

In summary, Lincecum was so open and forthcoming that is was a breath of fresh air. I sure hope he keeps that great attitude over the years, but it might be tough if he wins a couple more Cy Young awards.

In the end, I gave Tim (we’re on a first-name basis all ready) an official baseball hat from He didn’t don the cap when I presented it to him, probably because he didn’t want to mess up the do, but hopefully in the future I’ll see him wearing that hat out in public. He’s that type of kid.