Sports, politics, and organizing

Opinion

The review of Lester Rodney’s book, “Press Box Red,” (PWW 11/22-28/03) evoked memories.

I was a high schooler when I was invited to participate in two activities sponsored by the New Haven, Conn., Young Communist League, although I was not a member at the time.

One was the very well known Unity Players, an interracial drama group that had previously conducted a civil liberties campaign in order to mount the play “Waiting for Lefty,” by Clifford Odets. It won the Yale University State Drama Tournament. The production I was involved in was “Plant in the Sun,” modeled after the sit-down strikes in Michigan auto factories. We also won the award for the performance.

The other activity was the New Haven Redwings basketball team, an outstanding interracial group that won the City Championship. We traveled Connecticut, compiling an impressive record.

When I joined the YCL, we embarked on the campaign to desegregate baseball. Not only were the major leagues segregated, but the semi-pros in Connecticut were as well. Connecticut’s semi-pro league was flourishing, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds. George Fitch was an outstanding African American athlete in Connecticut. We carried the petitions that were distributed nationally, but we added to our campaign, centering it upon Fitch. Like elsewhere, we collected thousands of signatures, but we did not win.

The CIO was growing rapidly in Connecticut, a center of machine tool and brass industries. We helped in the organizing, reaching out to young workers. The corporations had a program of fielding basketball and baseball teams, actually recruiting athletes. They also organized bowling tournaments. This was, of course, to develop loyalty to the company. We decided that labor had to have its own athletic program. I became the organizer for the Connecticut CIO Youth and Sports Association. We set up shop in the “Brass Valley” – Ansonia, and organized baseball tournaments and bowling teams. Unfortunately the outbreak of World War II aborted the program.

I had several opportunities to use the experience I had accumulated. When World War II ended, I was with the Third Army in Germany, writing a sports column for the Army newspaper. There were many major league and college athletes in the service. I convinced the Army brass that we should bring all that talent together into a league. I was assigned the responsibility.

I was carried away with the spirit of the project. I thought it would be interesting if we could introduce baseball to the German children so I organized a three-day school for children. Famous ball players were brought to the school to teach the game. It was a total failure. The children started to kick the baseballs, like soccer balls, and when they realized the balls would not respond, one by one the children dropped out. It was a lesson for me of how sensitive one must be to cultural differences.

Another opportunity was quite recent. While organizing a seminar of mayors to participate in the Hague Conference for Peace at The Hague, Netherlands, I became acquainted with the leadership of Athletes for Peace. This is the organization of Olympic and professional athletes who opposed the Vietnam War. I learned they were conducting a program in Oakland, Calif., involving high school basketball players. I proposed they organize a team of all-stars that would participate in a round-robin at The Hague that I would organize. I reached out to the leadership of the municipality of The Hague, who welcomed the suggestion. They would provide the facility; organize Dutch teams; and publicize the event, inviting the community. UNICEF became very interested in this attempt to bring athletics to a Conference of Peace. It was a resounding success. The athletes were greeted enthusiastically by the youth attending the conference, and by the community. The games were played in a spirit of peaceful competition minus the usual rough play that characterizes so much of the play today. You can imagine the look of amazement on the faces of all the athletes when the master of ceremonies introduced a white-haired senior as the organizer of the games.

There is an injunction, “Man does not live by bread alone.” It still serves as a good organizing guide.



Al Marder is a peace activist in Connecticut. He can be reached at amistad.nai@rcn.com.