Bill Mardo says his political convictions made his sportswriting career.
At 18, Mardo, a member of the Young Communist League, told the YCL Review editor the absence of a sports page in the magazine hurt the fight against Jim Crow laws -- a position that flew in the face of the prevailing communist attitude toward organized sports.
"Don't just complain. Do something about it," Mardo recalled the editor saying as he anointed Mardo the Review's sports editor.
"And just like that, my love of sports and of writing came together in employment that worked with my political philosophy," Mardo said. "How lucky was that for an 18-year-old who didn't have a chance to go to college?"
Mardo said he'd always been a voracious reader and good student.
"Because I had the chutzpah to open my mouth, it was paying off!" Mardo reminisced.
After a short stint on the YCL Review in 1942, Mardo moved to the sports page of The Daily Worker, the Communist Party U.S.A.'s newspaper, where he, fellow columnist Lester Rodney, the subject of an upcoming feature to air on ESPN to mark Black History Month, and others fought to break down the color barrier in sports.
With the death Dec. 20 of Rodney, 98, of Walnut Creek, Calif., the 86-year-old New Yorker became the last remaining sportswriter who was deeply involved in the fight to end segregation not only in baseball, but in all professional sports.
Mardo sees it as sad that Jackie Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier April 15, 1947, was a historic event.
"In 1997, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jackie signing onto the (Brooklyn) Dodgers. That event shouldn't have had to be commemorated because racism shouldn't have had to be overcome in order for a black player to be on the team. If a guy was good enough to come to the bigs, he should've been able to be signed on automatically," Mardo said.
"A couple of generations have grown up knowing only complete integration in sports. I think youngsters today would be shocked to think of pro teams without people of color on them. They would say exactly what we said back then: 'You're kidding me! You're leaving out -- from the get-go -- far too many great athletes as prospects! It's not good for the teams and it's not fair to the athletes as Americans.'"
Members of the mainstream press largely shunned using their pens to support anti-segregation efforts in sports either because of personal beliefs or because they feared an outcry from their editors or readers.
A collection of Mardo's feistiest pieces, compiled in honor of his 75th birthday by friends and fellow politicos, Lorraine and Henry Foner, a former president of the Joint Board Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union, and with an introduction by Rodney, reveals Mardo as a well-reasoned, unrelenting, sharp-tongued champion of civil rights.
In a Jan. 31, 1946, column, the day after black ballplayer John Wright signed onto the Brooklyn Dodgers' Montreal farm team, Mardo criticized the other New York papers for not reporting the event.
Although the keen focus of Mardo's columns was on sports racism -- and considering the era, necessarily mostly on baseball -- his real love was boxing.
Daniel Stern, 57, of New York, a friend of Mardo's, shared the story of the young Mardo's participation in a boxing club in the basement of one of the several Brooklyn foster families in which Mardo grew up.
"Bill told me he was in a match and hit another kid with a solid punch, and he went down 'like he was shot,' as Bill put it," Stern said. "The kid didn't get up fast, which shocked and scared Bill, and he realized he didn't have the stomach to be a boxer." Mardo put down the gloves forever but called his Daily Worker column, "In This Corner."
Mardo now struggles with Parkinson's disease. Caring and compassionate as he has always been with people, he nevertheless has about as much patience with his own failing health as he had with racism and what he perceives as the U.S. failure to deal with what keeps minorities down: the ravages of poverty.
Mardo -- who said he was honored to have known Robinson and baritone Paul Robeson -- mused that were those men alive today, they would say that black people getting in touch with their roots is fine, but cultural pride can get people only so far. Nothing could do more for minorities than real opportunities for jobs. The ability to perform an honest day's work for adequate pay leads to dignity, pride, hope and the chance for a decent life.
"You'd think that with all the great scientific, technological strides our country has made, we would be able to figure out how to bring decent education to our starving ghetto neighborhoods," Mardo said. "Those mean streets teem with our most precious resource -- our children -- who are our only chance to continue to be great."