The strange tale of Lester Rodney: the Communist sports writer hunted by the FBI
How does the FBI reward you for campaigning against racism in sports and systemic injustice when you’re a member of the Communist party and also a sports writer?
Well, in the case of Lester Rodney, who was the long-serving sports editor of the Daily Worker, they surveil your every activity for decades.
Yes, indeed. J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies filled volumes of files with information on Rodney while he was the sports editor of the aforementioned paper. But even more absurdly, after he quit the small paper (20,000-person circulation) in 1958, they continued to monitor his activities. Particularly ridiculous since Rodney both had done nothing wrong and was by then working (ironically) as the religion editor of a paper in California.
For whatever reason, Hoover had a personal vendetta against Mr. Rodney. In his 1958 book, Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America, Hoover called out Rodney by name, saying his “On the Scoreboard” columns were “slanted to promote the [Communist] party’s views” and amounted to “propaganda.”
Hmm. How exactly, Mr. Hoover? By saying it’s better to bat from the left side than the right?
While Rodney was a member of the Communist party, he also well known for persistently beating the drum for desegregation in baseball during the 1930s and 1940s. Later in his life, Rodney was well regarded as one of the most significant voices in sport ahead of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
So, you’re probably wondering what horrific and treasonous act originally drew the FBI’s ire. This appears to be it: Rodney participated in a protest in Pittsburgh against the mistreatment of party members. This prompted the FBI to open a file, look into his finances, talk to his landlords, and examine his mail.
The fact that Rodney served as a combat medic in the Pacific during World War II AFTER participating in the protest apparently did nothing to convince the g-men of his loyalty to the U.S.
“A 10-page FBI report dated April 3, 1950, cited numerous activities supporting Communist political candidates and also that “he stated in his newspaper column on 11/1/48 that he was a Communist.” A March 25, 1953, FBI memo about a Rodney story criticizing conservative media coverage of Soviet Union-U.S. military gamesmanship called his account “somewhat seditious.”’
And on and on. Rodney’s activities and writings were closely monitored, but he never did anything really significant…or seditious. Rodney broke with the party in 1956 after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, but the FBI continued to monitor his activities until 1971, paying particular attention to his travel to cover various sporting events, such as the Winter Olympics.
Rodney died in December, 2009, at the age of 98. It goes without saying that the FBI never issued any sort of an apology.