Contact with Henry Foner, an outstanding union leader, political activist, and talented musician, resulted from my bid to honor Jackie Robinson with a major conference at LIU Brooklyn, then my home away from home for thirty years. With a modest budget, I tried to get a galaxy of baseball luminaries, journalists, writers, broadcasters, historians, students, and fans to attend. Someone—I forget who—suggested that I contact Henry Foner. He had appeared in Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary on “Baseball in America” with a stunning revelation. On April 15, at a family Seder, Henry, the youngest of four glorious brothers (to borrow a phrase from author Howard Fast) asked his father Die fir kashes (no varnishkas please) or the Four Questions, a ritual at every Passover plot. His elderly father responded in predictable fashion and repeated the formulaic explanation. Henry politely corrected his dad with good news stating that the difference maker, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson had integrated major league baseball on this day. No doubt, jubilation greeted this assertion. Mark Reese, the son of Robinson’s defender and teammate Harold “Pee Wee” Reese also used Henry’s remarks in his four part documentary on America’s favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers (certainly not the Dallas Cowboys). In that documentary, Lester Rodner, former sports editor of The Daily Worker offered his recollections of paving the way for Robinson’s advent, in which he played no small part.
So I contacted Henry Foner. He put me in touch with Lester Rodney, then residing in Walnut Creek, California. Rodney’s colleague at the Worker, Bill Mardo lived in Manhattan. Thanks to Henry’s connection with both writers, they agreed to come to Brooklyn for our conference now stirring major media coverage and massive interest. In addition, Henry put me in touch with Paul Robeson, Jr. who, unhappy with his hand-picked biographer Martin Duberman, was working on his own biography of his late, great father. Exuding friendly persuasion, Henry convinced Robeson, whose father he admired and protected in that infamous Peekskill Riot in the summer of 1949 to join our conference.
The Robinson Conference succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. An astonishing list of attendees made a difference. They included Robinson’s beloved wife Rachel, his counterpart in the American League: Larry Doby as well as team-mates Ralph Branca, Gene Hermanski, Joe Black, Bobby Bragan, Clem Labine, and Johnny Podres. Opponents like Stan “the Man” Musial, Warren Spahn, Tommy Henrich, Bob Feller, and even Enos Slaughter (who, despite his denials, deliberately spiked Jackie in 1947). To show respect for Robinson’s achievements, more contemporary players like Donn Clendenon, Lou Brock, Frank Robinson, Joe Pignatano, Ozzie Smith also showed up. We also attracted that marvelous griot and Kansas City Monarch teammate of Robinson, John “Buck” O’Neal, the first African-American coach in the major leagues. To round out our magic circle, we summoned scholars, educators, fans, broadcasters, activists, and writers from all over. Here are some of the names: Roger Kahn and Roger Rosenblatt (two keynoters), Mark Herrmann, Jimmy Breslin, John Jeansonne, Dave Anderson, Tom Boswell, Marty Glickman, Stan Isaacs, Joe Boskin, Joram Warmund (my co-director), Bob Cherry, Norman Siegel, Peter Levine, Peter Golenbock, Larry Lester, and Joey Goldstein among other luminaries.
The very next year, Henry Foner provided even more vital assistance for a conference celebrating the life and legacy of Paul Robeson. He lined up novelist Howard Fast and the American Labor Chorus. From Esther Jackson, thanks to Henry’s friendship, we received the right to read and later to publish Pablo Neruda’s paean to Robeson. In short, Foner proved an MVP in recruiting attendees, promoting a major event on a shoe string budget, and serving as a keynote speaker. Later, he proved equally indispensable in securing photographs (and permissions from same) from the Daily Worker archives. Henry also elicited from a Paul Robeson’s son—no easy task—vital documents as well as photographs. To put icing on the cake, he wrote a brilliant introduction to our book, Paul Robeson: Essays on Life and Legacy (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002). Still in print, it has earned a devoted readership thanks in no small measure to our man for all seasons: Henry Foner.
Henry and his good friend, George Kapp, science teacher extraordinaire at James Madison High School recruited me to speak at SNAP, an idealistic organization designed to promote peace by engaging in praxis, i.e. combining theory with action. Aided and abetted by his late wife, Lorraine, this gallant band of peace lovers attended rallies for peace, vigorously campaigning for a just society, and condemning war. That effort epitomized the Foner family’s enduring commitment to social justice. Unlike many of his comrades (you should pardon the expression), Henry was blessed with a keen sense of humor and utilized a pragmatic approach to achieve desired goals, especially in the labor movement, now facing serious challenges in corporate America.
Foner continued to attend the conferences that I organized, including one memorable event at St. Francis College to celebrate the “City Game,” namely, basketball. Henry joked that he carried his brother Moe’s gym bag to games at Brooklyn College where his big brother (not Orwell’s) played with distinction. Evidently, his older twin brothers, Phil and Jack were too busy mining history for golden, albeit anti-capitalist, nuggets. At our conference shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001, Henry incorporated the work of his grandson into a fine discourse on basketball. A book on that subject would have featured the Foners’ joint effort but we failed to meet the deadline and the book never materialized.
Two years later at Kutcher’s Hotel, alova sholem (R.I.P.) in Monticello, New York, we discoursed again on Catskill Comedy. When I observed that many comedians in the Depression Era sang “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Henry spontaneously stood up, upon my request, and joined me in a rousing rendition of this Jay Gorney/Yip Harburg classic. Always ready for a witty observation, a profound insight, a moment of levity, Henry confided in this writer that he, like me, had battled depression during the 1930s and beyond.
The loss of his beloved wife, two daughters, and a grandson seemed to evoke the Biblical Job. And I wondered, as I wander, how Henry could cope with such tsores. Evidently, “It takes a worried man,” as gifted writer put it “to sing a worried song.” Fortunately, the healing power of laughter, a key to Jewish survival as I repeatedly insist in my book on Jewish humor, is evident in all of Henry’s writing and conversation. Like Jackie Robinson, who we both revered, Henry refused to yield. Ninety-six years young, he was inducted into the Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame in 2015. As one who pressed for this highly prestigious and long deserved koved to be conferred on Henry Foner, I was delighted. Now, learning of Henry’s death (see the obituary in The New York Times, Jan. 22, 2017, I am bereft. Die emmis gezogt (truth be told); when I grow up, I would want to be like Henry Foner.
A friend and admirer, Joe Dorinson