Say It Ain't So
Recently deceased author Eliot Asinof, best known for "Eight Men Out," a 1963 book on the fixing of the 1919 World Series and the banishment of the eight "Black Sox" from Major League Baseball, turns out to himself been on the wrong side of a baseball-related blacklist. The story of these members of the Chicago White Sox throwing the Series has remained in public memory due to Asinof's book, John Sayles 1988 movie of the same name, and, above all, the words a small boy is said to have directed toward Joe Jackson, the greatest player of the eight: "Say it ain't so, Joe." The Hollywood blacklist that affected Asinof as a television and movie writer in the 1950s is also generally well remembered, but the particular reason for Asinof's blacklisting is not. According to his New York Times obituary, he attributed it to having once signed "a petition outside of Yankee Stadium to encourage the New York Yankees to hire black ballplayers."
As Lester Rodney once put it, "The whole history leading up to Jackie Robinson has usually been that an electric light went on in the head of the noble Branch Rickey one morning and he ended baseball discrimination." That is to say, after so many black veterans like Jackie Robinson returned from serving their country in World War II, America finally woke up to its responsibilities and Brooklyn Dodger owner Rickey signed Robinson to break the baseball color barrier in 1947. Rodney knew otherwise by dint of his position as sports editor of the Daily Worker, the American Communist Party's New York newspaper which by that point had been running articles calling for baseball's integration for ten years.
As Rodney kept up the drumbeat of pieces asking white players and managers if they would play with blacks (they generally said yes), in 1938, the Communist Party began campaigning in earnest, with help from organizations the FBI would call "Communist front groups," like the Young Communist League, the National Maritime Union, and the Trade Union Athletic League. As "End Jim Crow in Baseball" banners appeared at May Day parades, the Worker arranged a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates for several Negro League players and a left-wing Boston City Councillor set one up with the Red Sox for Jackie Robinson and a couple of others. (Nothing came of either and in 1959 the Red Sox became the last team to integrate.) There was even an ''End Jim Crow in Baseball Day'' at the New York World's Fair and, of course, the petitions.
The campaign target was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge named first Commissioner of Baseball in 1920 to clean up the sport following the Black Sox scandal. Landis had presided over the convictions of Industrial Workers of the World leader Big Bill Haywood and Milwaukee Socialist Party Congressman Victor Berger in separate trials stemming from their opposition to World War I. (After Berger's trial, Landis said he would have liked to have the defendants "lined up against a wall and shot.") The career-destroying conviction of black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson for taking his white girlfriend across state lines for "immoral purposes" also occurred in his courtroom. Landis maintained to the end that there was no unwritten "color line" in baseball. Jackie Robinson was not signed until after his death.
Since there were said to eventually be one-and-a-half to two million petition signers, it may be hard to imagine that merely being one of them could get someone blacklisted, but that would be to underestimate the intensity of the Cold War era anticommunist scare. The FBI was right on the case; an internal report describing a meeting for baseball integration notes that "all of the individuals involved have been reliably reported as members of the Communist Party." And the owners didn't appreciate the attention one bit. When New York Yankee owner Larry MacPhail spoke of "political and social-minded drumbeaters" who were forcing "the race question" on baseball, he did not mean it as a complement. The Yankees would be the last New York team to integrate, in 1955.
For its part, the mainstream press needed little prodding. When a Worker photographer and a Harlem newspaper reporter appeared at the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1943 spring training with two Negro League players they wanted Rickey to try out, a New York Journal-American sportswriter wrote of "a sickening Red tinge." Eventually even former friends would turn on the Communists. Not only had the Pittsburgh Courier, then the most widely circulated Negro weekly in the nation, initially followed the Worker's lead in campaigning for baseball integration, but in 1939 the Worker even ran a letter from the Courier's sports editor praising its efforts. A few years later, however, after that light bulb flashed on in Rickey's head, the same editor would write, "The Communists did more to delay the entrance of Negroes in big league baseball than any other single factor."
A group calling themselves the Citizens Committee to Combat Communism even took former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to task for her involvement, citing her 1945 sponsorship of an End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in their pamphlet "Eleanor's Red Record". And while many Negro League players signed a petition, including eventual Baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, considered by some the game's greatest catcher although he never appeared in the Major Leagues, even that wasn't a given. Buck Leonard, another Hall of Famer who was never a Major Leaguer, recalled his teammates on the Homestead Grays, a Pittsburgh Negro League team, telling a Worker reporter that they'd certainly go to a major league tryout if writers could arrange it, but they wouldn't sign a petition.
So with the passing of Asinof, let us remember not only the boy who became famous for saying, "Say it ain't so, Joe," but the forgotten millions who once said "Say it ain't so, Kenesaw."
Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco writer and activist.