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Rodney deserves a spot in MLB's Hall of Fame

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Amy Rodney admitted she gave it some thought. It would have been fitting to spread her dad's ashes where Ebbets Field once stood in Brooklyn's Flatbush section. Fitting indeed, considering her dad, Lester, had put so much of his very being into the place.

Instead, sometime after the memorial service Feb. 27, Rodney will take the urn with Lester's ashes, bury it in the backyard of her Santa Rosa home and beside it plant a tree in his name.

If it grows like the man underneath, the tree will be straight and tall, striking a singular, unique pose from all the other trees around it.

Lester Rodney died Dec. 20th at the age of 98 and was what so many of us aspire to be but rarely are — a sportswriter who made a difference.

Lester Rodney was the lone voice in the wilderness. He was the first and, as it turned out, the only sportswriter in the '30s and '40s who advocated Major League Baseball stop its segregation policy and allow African-American players on the field. He wrote about it, organized picket lines at ballparks and collected a million and a half signatures he presented in protest to Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

Rodney will be an ESPN documentary subject during Black History Month in February. He is the subject of a new Roger Kahn book. Already the subject of another book, Rodney was the featured speaker at a national conference in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut as a Brooklyn Dodger. Rodney could count as close friends Dusty Baker and the late Roy Campanella.

Lester championed justice for all, words that might seem like so much legal blather, but he did it during a time in which blacks were prohibited from playing MLB. Blacks couldn't even eat in the same restaurants as whites, or stay in the same hotels. And Lester Rodney did this, by the way, as a white sportswriter. A white sportswriter ostracized by his peers; he wrote two baseball books for children in the 1950s under a pseudonym. It is said no man is an island but Lester Rodney came pretty close.

Yes, Lester Rodney struck a singular, unique pose. He made a singular, unique impression on his daughter. Amy practices family law in Sonoma County, is especially an advocate for children's rights and is admittedly drawn to helping those who have little political or financial power. All thanks to dad.

"I admire my father so much for taking on a politically unpopular topic," said Rodney, 62, a UCLA law school graduate. "But he never did this as a self-promoter. He just did this because he felt it was the right thing to do."

But Lester Rodney, even to those who are well-versed in the civil rights movement in America, is not an immediately recognizable name. There is one glaring reason for that, one that shouldn't have existed but did, and still does for others.

Rodney wrote about segregation in MLB as the sports editor of The Daily Worker, the American Communist Party newspaper of the time. He called the ban against blacks "un-American ... the crime of the big leagues."

He was a communist — who later left communism in protest of Joseph Stalin's human purge in Russia — and that was all it took for many people to write off Rodney.

That his being a communist somehow made irrelevant the infallibility of his logic: That racial discrimination in the land of the free was morally reprehensible. That justice for all meant, in MLB, justice for some and injustice for others. Rodney was writing about the rights of people in The Daily Worker, the rights in this case being violated, of a qualified black man being denied employment because of skin pigmentation.

When a sportswriter asked Joe DiMaggio who was the best pitcher he ever faced, the Yankee Hall of Famer replied, "Satchel Paige." Every New York newspaper was represented at the time of the interview and every New York newspaper ignored the story the next day except The Daily Worker. The headline above Rodney's story read: "Paige The Greatest I Have Faced — DiMaggio."

Yes, Rodney beat the drum loud and often, but because he beat it in The Daily Worker, the message was ignored, the man himself minimized and history ill-served by that combination.

"Ken Burns largely ignored my father when he did his documentary film on the history of baseball," Amy Rodney said.

As the years passed and Rodney made frequent trips from Walnut Creek to see Amy first in Sebastopol, then Penngrove and now Santa Rosa, his influence began to gain attention and influence. Lester Rodney showed baseball was more than just a game. It was a statement, of who America is, or isn't. Baseball was and still is a game of layers and Rodney exposed this layer of warts.

"Negro soldiers and sailors are among those beloved heroes of the American people who have already died for the perseveration of this country and everything this country stands for, including the great game of baseball," Rodney wrote in an open letter to Landis in the Daily Worker in May, 1942. "You, the self-proclaimed czar of baseball, are the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our National Pastime."

That was five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

Now, just a scant three weeks after his death and however late, Lester Rodney should receive his just reward. For that letter, for all those words and actions that influenced people, Lester Rodney should enter the writer's wing of Baseball's Hall of Fame. For Lester Rodney satisfies the most basic requirement for induction. One can not tell the story of Major League Baseball without mentioning his name.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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