A Yankee Pitcher’s Forgotten Olympic Protest

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

On the eve of the controversial Beijing Olympics, the children of a New York Yankees pitching ace have learned for the first time of their father’s unusual role in the most hotly disputed Olympics ever–the 1936 games in Nazi Germany.

Former Long Islander Marian Markovitch found out this week that just a few years before he starred for the Yankees, her dad, “Lefty” Russo, was one of the few American athletes who boycotted the Berlin Olympics to protest the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews.

As a student at Long Island University in the 1930s, Russo starred in two sports. When he wasn’t on the baseball diamond, he was a starter for the LIU Blackbirds’ basketball team, a national powerhouse. During the months leading up to the Berlin Olympics, Russo and his LIU teammates won an amazing thirty-three straight games, by an average margin of twenty-three points.

The 1936 Olympics were the first time basketball would be part of the competition, and the Long Islanders stood a strong chance of being chosen to represent the U.S. in Berlin–until the players’ consciences got the better of them. In March 1936, on the eve of the Madison Square Garden qualifying tournament, LIU president Tristram Metcalfe shocked the sports world with his announcement of the team’s decision to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.

In view of Hitler’s anti-Jewish abuses, President Metcalfe explained, the players had decided “that the United States should not participate in Olympic Games since they are being held in Germany,” and would “not to compete [in the tryouts] because the university would not under any circumstances by represented in the Olympic Games held in Germany.”

Such a stance was almost unheard of in the sports world. Even moreso in those days than today, athletes seldom spoke their minds on public affairs, much less put their careers on the line to protest events overseas. Of the hundreds of American athletes who were likely to qualify for the U.S. team, the only others to boycott Berlin over the persecution of German Jewry were speedskater Jack Shea, sprinter Herman Neugass, and track and field stars Norman Cahners, Milton Green, Lillian Copeland and Syd Koff.

But the boycotters’ protests were drowned out in the excitement over Jesse Owens’s famous victories in Berlin. The courageous American athletes who stayed home, risking their careers to speak out for the oppressed, were forgotten. Even Russo’s own daughters never knew of their father’s action.

“Dad was an extremely modest man, who never boasted about his athletic accomplishments,” Mrs. Markovitch said this week, after being informed of new research by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies about her father and the other boycotters. “So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he never told me or my sister about this. But I am very proud to know that he took such a brave stand, to protest against the Nazis.”

Four of Russo’s Blackbirds teammates went on to play for the American Basketball League, as it was called. Lefty, however, was drafted by the Yankees and soon emerged as one of their ace pitchers. As a rookie in 1939, he went 8-3 with a 2.41 ERA. In 1940, he was 14-8, and in 1941, when Russo again won 14 games, he was chosen for the All Star Team.

It was Russo’s blazing line drive that broke the knee of Brooklyn pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons in Game 3 of the 1941 World Series, forcing the Dodgers to bring Hugh Casey in to relieve. Casey blew the game–and then lost the next day’s game (and the Series) because of Mickey Owens’ infamous passed ball. Two years later, Russo not only pitched the Yanks to victory over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the World Series, but also doubled and scored the winning run.

Ironically, it was basketball that ended Lefty’s baseball career. While serving as an athletic director for the army during World War Two, Russo fell and injured his pitching elbow in a basketball game. Despite several postwar comeback attempts, he was never able to return to his old form.

As children, Marian and her sister Carol often accompanied their dad to Old Timers games at Yankee Stadium. “Watching him pal around with all those old stars, not to mention the younger ones like Mickey Mantle, I realized there was a whole part of Dad’s life that I didn’t know much about. Now I know that there was even more to his story than any of us ever realized.”

When the Beijing Olympics begin next Friday, several world leaders will be absent from the opening ceremony, as a protest against China’s policies in Tibet and its support for the genocidal government of Sudan. In another departure from tradition, a number of athletes, too, have publicly criticized Chinese abuses. To be sure, these mild protests are not nearly as remarkable as the phenomenon of athletes giving up their chance to compete for the sake of a higher cause But they are a step in the right direction nonetheless. Perhaps a bit of Lefty Russo’s spirit is still with us, after all.

August 2008