Severely Ill Civil Rights Icon
“Jackie…. Jackie…. puh-leeze …Jackie! Excited kids leaning over the Dodger dugout roof, imploring a smiling, ebony-skinned twenty-eight-year old athlete to scribble his name on a white baseball…. on an outstretched piece of paper…. on anything. The air so thick with excitement you could almost dip your fingers into it. Ebbets Field, Opening Day of a new baseball season – opening in a whole new way. Yes, yes, on this fifteenth day of April in 1947, Jackie Robinson picked up his bat and broke the chains that had imprisoned a great American game for more seasons than anyone wants to remember.”
An excerpt from “Robinson – Robeson”, the twelfth chapter of “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream” (Edited by Joseph Dorinson and Joram Warmund)
My relationship with Bill Mardo, whom I affectionately refer to as “The Mighty Mardo”, began back in April of 2010. At the time, I was volunteering at a Manhattan senior care facility. Every Wednesday, from 3pm to 4pm, I would serve as the deejay for “The Classics Café”, a dance mix program that I created for the facility to engage and entertain many of the wheelchair-bound residents. I would play anything from the Andrew Sisters to James Brown, and the seniors would get their groove on for the full hour.
The program became an enormous hit, and it wasn’t long before many of the residents approached me for requests. But there was one man who never did. I approached him -- as he sat close to his longtime companion, Ruth -- and asked if there was a specific artist or song he liked. With a slight smirk he responded, “Sinatra”. The smirk led me to believe that he didn’t think I could pull it off, but I promised him that I would play a classic or two from “Old Blue Eyes” every week. I kept that promise for eight consecutive months. The Creator rewarded me for my act of kindness by allowing me to discover this man’s amazing and breathtaking legacy.
One day, while in route to the facility, I ran into Ruth. “Everyone loves you and the Classics Café! We hope you’re not leaving anytime soon, especially Bill,” she exclaimed. “He was so thrilled when you played Sinatra, and I wanted to show my appreciation by giving you this,” she stated. She handed me a thick envelope and revealed that she Googled me. Your work as a journalist and writer is absolutely amazing, G-Man. You have a lot in common with Bill. Please read this and let me know what you think,” she concluded. We hugged in the middle of 86th Street and West End Avenue and parted company.
The envelope contained the complete version of the Robinson–Robeson excerpt I presented at the beginning of this article. The chapter features one of the greatest essays ever written on not just Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, but also on racism in America and the true relationship between Robinson and the legendary Paul Robeson. Mardo unleashes a blistering and merciless attack on the late, great Dodger general manager Branch Rickey and his original reluctance to sign Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Mardo brought these words to life during a speech at Long Island University, in 1997, marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s historic feat. Copyright restrictions prevent me from publishing the piece in its entirety, but I urge each of you to obtain a copy and share it with as many people, especially young people, as possible. Please!
To say that I was speechless after reading Mardo’s essay would be an understatement. I was determined to find out more about him and conducted Internet searches that went well past 3am. I was catapulted into a state of awe after learning Mardo, back in 1941, at the tender age of 18, became a member of the Young Communist League (YCL). Mardo took the editor of the “YCL Review” to task for not having a sports page – something Mardo felt was crucial in the fight against Jim Crow. The fiery, unrelenting and young sportswriter became the YCL Review’s first sports editor.
His powerful prose and scathing attacks on segregation and racism, in both society and professional sports, eventually caught the attention of another columnist named Lester Rodney. Rodney was the sports editor for the “Daily Worker”, the Communist Party U.S.A.’s newspaper. In 1937, Rodney and the publication launched a personal crusade against segregation and racism in professional sports through a series of news stories and columns. Mardo brought his take-no-prisoners style of writing to the publication in 1942, and Robinson was signed to the Dodgers five years later. This "Dynamic Duo of Desegregation" helped change the course of history and sports journalism.
The Daily Worker Sitting Room, circa 1943.
Many historians and sports analysts have cited Rodney, Mardo and the Daily Worker as having an enormous impact on Branch Rickey’s decision to bring Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. While it is true that many Black organizations, newspapers and sportswriters were just as important in defeating segregation in major league baseball at that time, Mardo was one of the few sportswriters in the country that developed and maintained a very close relationship with Robinson on and off the field.
Mardo was there when people, Black and white, Jew and Protestant, praised and prayed for Robinson. Mardo was also there when people spit on Robinson and yelled, “Go back to the nigger leagues, boy!” or “Got that fried chicken and watermelon for you in the dugout, nigger!” Mardo battled the monsters with his conviction, sharp mind and love of words. Lester Rodney died in 2009 at the age of 98. Mardo, now 87, a knight who played a significant role in slaying the baseball segregation dragon, is all that’s left to remind us of this dynamic duo’s remarkable achievement and the Daily Worker’s unsung legacy.
Every person in America owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bill Mardo, Lester Rodney and the Daily Worker, and it is high time that something was done to honor them. Mardo and I have become extremely close, and not too long ago Ruth informed me that he is extremely ill. Needless to say, I was deeply affected by the news.
Realizing he may not have much time left with us, as he is battling Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, I refuse to simply stand by and watch this great man waste away or die in a Manhattan nursing home. Soon, these dreadful diseases will rob him of every wonderful memory he has of his beloved Ruth, his family, his friends, his historic achievement, Robinson and Robeson. The day will come when Mardo, a man that helped change the course of history, won’t remember any of it. Not only does this make me angry and sad, it makes me cry. That’s why something must be done now!
He is pictured with his long-time companion, Ruth.
I'm determined to see that this legendary man is honored. I’ve reached out to most of the major sports anchors and writers in New York City, and they haven’t even bothered to respond. I’ve reached out to the New York State Conference of Black Senators, and they haven’t bothered to respond. I love Bill Mardo and his legacy enough to tell them all, right here and now, in classic Mardo fashion, that they’re a disgrace to this nation for refusing to acknowledge his legacy! They aren’t fit to carry the trusty typewriter Mardo constantly banged away on, and they should be deeply, deeply ashamed of themselves!
That’s why I wrote this piece, and that’s why I’m calling on President Barack Obama, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Council, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, ESPN Magazine, and professional athletes from various sports to publicly acknowledge Bill Mardo and Lester Rodney. I’m also urging the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to launch an all-out effort to have them inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I will close with another excerpt from Mardo’s brilliant and critically acclaimed Robinson-Robeson.
“Having had the real privilege of knowing both Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson, I know in my gut that this is what Jackie and Paul would be addressing today. They might be saying, “Hey, Ebonics is a fact of Black life. But c’mon, let’s get real! Roots…street language…the vernacular…don’t have a damn thing to do with what is number one on the agenda. There’s a four-letter word that that we all spell alike and pronounce alike. It’s called jobs…J-O-B-S! Jobs lead to another four-letter word that we all spell alike and pronounce alike. It’s called hope…H-O-P-E! Jobs and hope lead to something called L-I-F-E-!”
For more information on Bill Mardo and the Daily Worker, please visit these links: