In the annals of
revolutionary leaders, rebels have often led uncommon lives, subject to unexpected
twists and turns. Yet few radicals have had a hidden life as improbable as that
of Leon Trotsky. For all we have come to know about his remarkable life as a
Russian revolutionary, his final years remain murky, shrouded in uncertainty.
Where did he really go after his exile from the Soviet Union? What did he do?
How did he really die?
When visiting Trotsky's former house in Mexico
City in late 1980s, I got my first hint of what the history books have left
out. At this house, which now serves as a Trotsky museum, visitors take a short
tour, during which they see Leon's home as it was, and as it has remained, since
1940's, the year he was assassinated. As we walk through the building, we see
the double, bullet-proof doors, the bars on the windows, the various rooms Trotsky
and his wife occupied, and finally his study. In this room, we see his most
prized possessions, his books, his speeches, some historic photographs. Our
attention is drawn to his desk, left intact as it was on that fateful day when
an icepick was cruelly thrust into his skull by a Stalinist thug posing as Trotsky's
trusted assistant. There lies an open book, his glasses sprawled to the side,
a dried-out fountain pen, a vase, some Mexican pesos. Thus focused on his final
moment, one is hard pressed to see much more. And yet as I left, my eye caught
the faintest gleam of red, a Soviet remnant I first thought. But no, as I approached
the umbrella stand off in the corner, peering out was a red felt cloth. As I
looked closer, I couldn't recognize what was plain for me to see, so incongruous
did it seem. But there it was: a crumpled old baseball pennant that read: Cleveland
Even conventional biographies of Trotsky admit
that he visited the U.S.: he was in New York briefly before returning to Russia
for the revolution. But what connection could this, or anything else, have provided
him to Cleveland and the Indians? I could get no explanation in Mexico City.
Perhaps it was insignificant but the anomaly unnerved me, and I vowed I'd get
to the bottom of it. Yet time passed, and other things intervened. It was a
small mystery that others would have to solve, if it was ever resolved at all.
It was not until recently that my interest was
again peaked by Joel Zoss and John Bowman. In their book, Diamonds in the Rough,
the authors report that the Russians have claimed, at least as far back as the
1930s, that baseball is actually a Russian invention. Although at times, the
Soviets had urged their populace to reject baseball because it was an American
game, the Russians nevertheless took credit for originally inventing the sport.
It was claimed that a Russian village game, lapta, had been played for centuries
and was the forerunner of more modern baseball, brought to the U.S. through
Russian settlements on the West Coast of North America in the eighteenth century.
The writer, John Leo, dates lapta's arrival in
the U.S. a bit later, in the 1840s. Leo cites a story from Pravda that claims
that lapta and baseball were probably stolen by a Marine guard at the U.S. embassy
in Moscow who scurrilously wheedled crucial lapta information out of an unwary
Russian cook during an evening of illicit and probably drug-induced lovemaking.
Whichever version you believe, the New York Times
reported on February 17, 1935 that the Soviet Government, apparently seeking
to reclaim its ownership of the game, decided today to sponsor a program for
introducing baseball throughout the Soviet Union as a national sport. Zoss and
Bowman claim that . . .for whatever reasons, nothing seems to have come of it.
But this vastly underestimates the real story.
Indeed, a game resembling baseball had long been played in the Soviet Union.
What historians often ignore is that one of those who most excelled at the sport
was none other than Leon Trotsky, who first starred on his school team in the
small town of Yanovka in the Ukraine, and then played semi-pro lapta in various
leagues around the country. Trotsky was also a fierce advocate for lapta as
the Soviet national sport. He believed it was the only game with real, revolutionary
potential. He was not alone. John Leo reminds us of Vladimir Lenin's famous
admonition about the Russian psyche: Anyone who wishes to understand the Russian
soul had better learn lapta.
Leon Trotsky was born as Lev (Leib) Davidovich
Bronstein. His date of birth is often given as 1879 but surely this is a mistake.
It's not a surprising one. By the 1920s, Trotsky had been labeled by Stalin
as an enemy of the Soviet state. He had all memory of Leon eliminated after
Trotsky's exile, turning Leon into what has subsequently been called "the annihilated
shadow," and the most famous phantom in Russian history. Most likely the numbers
in Trotsky's given birthdate were inadvertently transposed, and he was probably
born instead in 1897. Leon changed his name from Bronstein to Trotsky in his
early years; it wouldn't be the last time. There ís little doubt about
Trotsky's extraordinary mind; certainly he was a child prodigy. Precocious as
he was, Leon could not have been involved in the aborted 1905 Russian Revolt,
as is often assumed, since he could have been no more than 7 years old at the
time. It's commonly reported that Trotsky was sentenced to life in exile in
Siberia in 1906. He did go to Siberia at this time but only because his father
had accepted a teaching position there. The experience wasn't lost on the young
Leon, however. Not long after, Trotsky began developing his revolutionary views.
Soon his political activism brought him trouble
both in school and beyond. As a result, he was forced to leave Russia for Paris
in 1914 at the ripe age of 17, having established himself not only as a formidable
intellect but also as a lapta pitching star. While he had traveled briefly to
London and Vienna before this, his time in Paris was Leon's first real experience
of living abroad. But discontent and trouble always followed him, and by 1916
he was expelled from France for his anti-war activity.
Without lapta, Leon was miserable anyway. Not
coincidentally, he moved from France to the U.S. in 1917, where he lived briefly.
Trotsky returned to Russia later that year after the monarchy's collapse but
not before attending several Giants games at the Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan.
At one time sympathetic to the Mensheviks, who had formed a Provisional Government,
Leon soon joined with Lenin, and eventually organized the Bolshevik insurrection
that took control of the revolution by October of 1917. He was then appointed
Commisar of Foreign Affairs. In 1918 he was appointed Commisar of War, a post
he used to organize the Red Army and to help negotiate a peace with Germany
at the end of World War I.
In his book, Diamond Mind, Richard Crepeau quotes
the reporter, Benjamin DeCasseres, who in 1918 wrote in the New York Times,
that baseball was the sport of democracies and that the world ought to be made
safe for baseball. As long as baseball was popular with the people, the Kaisers
and the Trotskys would strike out. DeCasseres went on to say that the country
that really won the war was the country that had produced Christy Mathewson,
Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth. It wasn't the first time claims were made, however improbable,
that the U.S. was fighting the war abroad to promote democracy, and that U.S.
democracy at home had much to do with the national pastime.
The attention DeCasseres gave Trotsky was unusual,
and not a little bit ironic. While the Russian Revolution had been quickly added
to the First World War as the primary evils Americans had to fear, the limelight
for the former was usually reserved for Vladimir Lenin rather than for Trotsky.
But the reference to Leon may have been inadvertently revealing: to the contrary,
Trotsky had helped end rather than perpetuate the War. And, as it turns out,
he might well have been listed with Mathewson, Cobb and Ruth as one of DeCasseres'
baseball heroes, or at least among those future heroes who, through baseball,
kept America strong.
But the improbable sequence of events responsible
for this irony could not have been easily foreseen. In 1919, Trotsky organized
the successful defense of Petrograd against the White counterrevolutionary forces.
In 1921, he ordered the suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt by the Red Army.
By this time, Leon had become Lenin's right hand man. Unfortunately, Lenin had
also elevated Josef Stalin to a high position in the Soviet government. This
began a series of political disputes between Trotsky and Stalin. But perhaps
more important were the personal quarrels, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous.
Leon and Josef favored different lapta teams, for example. While perhaps trivial,
their debates were nevertheless often heated. This was only intensified by the
hours Stalin kept; his noisy, late-night, often drunken, returns to the Kremlin
would routinely wake Trotsky from what little sleep he was getting in those
The dispute between the two men escalated in 1924,
when Lenin died without designating a clear successor. It seems likely that
Lenin favored Trotsky but Stalin was nevertheless left with the upper hand since
he had already secured greater control of the growing Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.
In 1925, Trotsky was forced to resign as Commisar of War, and by 1926 he had
formed a political alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Stalin. This only
made him a bigger target. In 1927, Stalin expelled Trotsky from the Soviet Communist
Party, and in 1928, Leon was kidnapped and deported into internal exile in Alma
Ata in Soviet Central Asia. Trotsky's days left in the USSR were numbered. Viewed
as dangerous even under internal house-arrest, Stalin made the fateful decision
not to have Trotsky murdered (as other political enemies had been) but rather
to exile him permanently from the country.
The subsequent events challenge our conventional
understanding of Trotsky's remaining years. It was thought, for example, that
in 1929, Leon was exiled by Stalin to Turkey. Yet there's no clear record of
his time in that country. In fact, Trotsky had gone, instead, back to the United
States, where he sought shelter in middle America. In October 1929, Leon could
be found on a turkey farm in Iowa, the obvious source of the confusion.
As a child and young man, Trotsky had suffered
an endless array of illnesses. The photos of his earlier years (and there are
few of him thereafter) show a smallish, frail looking man. Upon his arrival
back in the U.S., however, Leon committed himself to vigorous physical labor
and a strict health program. This transformed Trotsky. With the exception of
his headaches, his illnesses disappeared, and, as it turns out--he secured a
long life for himself. What better place to accomplish this than on a farm in
Iowa. Besides his health, Leon's appearance also significantly changed. He bulked
up considerably, and seemed taller than before. This was not inconsequential
for keeping Stalin off his track, for it was not too long before Stalin decided
Trotsky was too much trouble, even in exile, and would have to be killed.
Besides altering his facade, Trotsky struggled
with his name and his identity. A fiercely proud man, Leon drew the line at
what precautions he would take to remain obscure. He had already changed his
name once but his wife implored him to do so again. But Trotsky had slipped
inconspicuously into the U.S. Despite the possible dangers, Leon was a little
hurt and surprised to learn how little known he was even at the U.S. border
much less in the Midwest. Even so, once settled in middle America, Trotsky falsified
his paperwork and secured a birth certificate, on which was entered his new
name, Harold Arthur Troyavesky.
But Leon soon learned the depths of American political
ignorance. This emboldened him to restore some semblance of his old name. When
a bank clerk misspelled Trotsky by leaving out the second "t." Leon
liked the minor change. And to really be American, one had to have a nickname:
Hal seemed like the natural way to shorten Harold. And thus, Leon Trotsky became
known as Hal Trosky.
If this meager change in name, and his more significant
change in features, would have still fallen short as a disguise, Trotsky's shift
in career would provide him the shelter he needed. Leon Trotsky decided to play
baseball. Despite his late start with the American version of the game, Leon,
as Hal Trosky, was a hit from the start.
Of course, the sketchy biographical information
about Hal Trosky makes no connection between Trosky the American and Trotsky
the Russian. But they were one and the same. In the conventional portrayals,
Hal Trosky was born in 1912 in Norway, Iowa. But a closer look at his records
indicates that his birth was not recorded until many years after he was born,
and the precise entry reads c. (for circa) 1912. Whoever entered this
information obviously only guessed at Hal's real birthdate. Most likely, this
was done by extrapolation, working backward from 1933--the year when he began
his professional baseball career and when he was likely asked, for the first
time, to produce a birth certificate.
Leon probably looked about 21 years old. Trotsky
always had a very boyish face but likely it was his physical and health regimen
that ensured the successful ruse. In fact, Leon was actually about 35 when he
began as a professional, thus attesting not only to his fitness but also to
his baseball skills, borrowed from his years in the lapta leagues. Remarkably,
like with Satchel Paige and Roy Hobbs, Leon broke into major league baseball
as a very old rookie. Thus it's also not surprising that Trotsky's career seems
relatively short. Often attributed to his migraines, Leon instead only succumbed
to the inevitable aging process: His playing days effectively ended at age 43,
with two aborted comebacks giving him two additional seasons by the time he
reached the age of 48!
Besides his dubious birth, Hal Trosky seems to
have emerged from nowhere. We have no evidence of Hal's childhood in Iowa. Nobody
can remember him in school. No one recalls where he lived. Of course, lives
were turned upside down in the late 1920s and early 1930s, amidst the Great
Depression. This may have been all the more so in Midwest rural America, where
miles often separated one family farm from another, and where communications
would often be irregular if there were any at all.
We're told that Hal's father had trouble keeping
him on the turkey farm because he loved baseball. And yet Hal remained at home
through 1930; long enough to finish My Life, the autobiography (to that point)
of Leon Trotsky. It's said that Hal was apparently initiated that same year
into the big leagues by listening to the radio broadcast of the World Series
between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Athletics. Hal decided
thereafter to pursue baseball seriously, and it wasn't too long before he was
attracting scouts to his games. In 1931, Hal signed his first professional contract
to play with the Cedar Rapids Bunnies. We're told that instead of Harold Troyavesky,
he began using his shortened name, Hal Trosky, at that time.
As a player, Trotsky seemed like a promising pitcher,
although his hitting was drawing just as much attention: It was not merely his
ability to hit and to hit with power, but also his cross-handed batting style.
This puzzled seasoned baseball men until one scout showed up in Trosky's kitchen
who apparently could understand. Hitting cross-handed was standard practice
in Russian lapta but who would have known that except for Leon and the Cleveland
Indian scout, Cy Slapincka. We know little about the man who posed as Hal's
father except that he has been described as having Polish, Russian and Czech
blood. Not surprisingly, he bonded instantly with Slapincka, who himself was
of Czech and Russian descent. Cy bounced around several major league teams,
and seems to have specialized in signing a few players with origins in Eastern
Europe. In 1938, for example, he signed Elmer Valo, a native of Ribnik, Czechoslovakia.
Other than this, we know very little about Slapincka, and his own background
seems as mysterious as Trotsky's.
We do know that Slapincka signed Leon to a major
league contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1932. With good reason, Trotsky
was first signed as a pitcher. But without explanation, Leon soon insisted that
he be switched to first base. Despite its concern, the Cleveland organization
had little it could say in response to Trosky's 1933 season: Playing everyday,
Hal hit .323 with 33 home runs for the Toledo Mud Hens minor league team. Like
Roy Hobbs, Trotsky did what he needed to as an old rookie: he knew his arm would
not likely last very long in major league competition. Besides, back in Russia
he was a pitcher. What better way to further deflect attention than to change
positions, especially since lapta didn't even have a first base!
Based on his banner year for the Mud Hens, Trotsky
was called up to the big club in Cleveland in September 1933, thus forever ending
his minor league career. Most accounts have Leon emigrating from Turkey to France
this year but of course his standout season, and his longstanding ban from France,
would have effectively prevented this. Tragically, in 1933 his daughter committed
suicide in Berlin, which Leon blamed on Russian politics. Remarkably, amidst
all of the year's ups and downs, Leon nevertheless managed to finish his most
famous work, The History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky had to carefully
monitor the politics in his own conversations but writing anonymously gave him
the free reign to lash out at injustice, and at the subversions of the Russian
In 1934, back for his first full year with the
Indians, Hal accomplished one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history.
He hit .330, with 206 hits, 45 doubles, 35 home runs, 117 runs, and 142 runs
batted in. He was dubbed by both American League President William Harridge
and by opposing manager Connie Mack, as the next Babe Ruth. Yet the history
books have Leon moving again this year, from France to Norway. But the closest
he got to Scandinavia was his trip back, after the season, to the town in which
he had lived since his return to the U.S.: Norway, Iowa. The confusion is understandable.
In 1935, Hal had another good year, although he
slipped a bit from his previous season, with fewer hits, home runs and runs
batted in. Perhaps it was the strain of his increasing political troubles. That
year, Stalin launched the Moscow Trials, and many of Trotsky's former colleagues
were quickly executed for treason. Leon himself would soon be targeted as an
enemy of the Soviet state. But even worse, as suggested in the aforementioned
New York Times article, 1935 was the year that baseball was proposed as the
Russian national pastime. Contrary to his otherwise tightfisted control of all
Soviet policy, Stalin had come to view sports as a mere distraction. He was
outraged at his usually ineffectual sports ministry for making this announcement
without his clearance.
But the final death knell for the proposal came
when Stalin learned that it was Trotsky who had secretly sponsored and drafted
the idea, with the tacit approval of those left in the Soviet government who
were still sympathetic to Leon's possible return. Stalin reacted swiftly; more
heads fell, and he then launched a counterproposal to make ice hockey, rather
than baseball, into the Soviet national game. And he renewed his determination
to get Trotsky at any cost.
In 1936, Stalin accused Trotsky of conspiracy,
ideological heresy, and plotting the overthrow of the Soviet government. Leon
was put on trial in Moscow, in absentia. Trotsky's real whereabouts were unknown
but Stalin certainly knew he was not in Norway. Leon would mysteriously appear
and disappear, first in Copenhagen then in Barcelona, and so forth. Stalin was
nevertheless determined to officially blacken Trotsky's name, once and for all.
If he could not yet be killed, then at least Trotsky's 1936 trial would forever
ruin his name before the Soviet people. But Stalin's vengeance went well beyond
politics. In Stalin's eyes, Trotsky's real offense was baseball. Stalin suddenly
realized the blunder of his policies: he had promoted nothing that would strike
at the heart of the Russian soul. He resented Trotsky's co-optation of lapta,
thus leaving Stalin no choice but to propose an alternative. Stalin bitterly
resented being forced to choose the only real competition for lapta in the USSR:
ice hockey. Josef had always hated the excessive violence that plagued the sport.
Rather than rattle him, these events only rejuvenated
Trotsky, who relished having the international forum the trial would afford.
Hal came roaring back in the 1936 season, putting in what would be his best
year ever in the major leagues. Somehow baseball became his mantra, centering
him for the political battles yet to come. That year, Trosky hit .343, with
216 hits, 45 doubles, 42 home runs, and a whopping 162 runs batted in. If anything,
baseball was making Hal a bit too noticeable, although only to eyes that knew
where to look.
While Leon would leave Cleveland each October
for Iowa, he rarely spent much time there in the off-season. Most accounts locate
Trotsky in Mexico by 1937; he was purportedly there, exiled again, this time
from Norway. Actually, Leon had been spending winters in Mexico City, continuing
his revolutionary activism, as far back as 1934. He was never there full-time,
as was often supposed. Trotsky had a vast legion of international supporters.
Many of them volunteered to serve as imposters, and several lived in Leon's
Mexico City house for extended periods, taking turns posing as the great revolutionary.
While in Mexico, Leon spent time with the celebrated
Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. Quite possibly, the two had an affair. At the very
least, Frida was enchanted with Leon, and made him the subject of at least a
couple of her famous paintings. For example, in Kahlo's Moses, Trotsky appears
along with other revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin. And in My Dress Hangs
There, Frida paints a figure in the far background that at first glance resembles
the Statue of Liberty. A closer look, however, shows this to be Trotsky with
a bat on his shoulder.
Of course, Leon met Frida through her husband,
the renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It was Rivera who sponsored Trotsky
in Mexico City. But Diego and Leon had first met in 1932, when Rivera was living
in Detroit, where he had been commissioned by Henry Ford to paint a mural for
the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rivera had closely followed Mexican baseball,
and regularly attended Tigers games. At a doubleheader one Sunday against the
Indians, Leon and Diego ran into each other. Trotsky had long admired Rivera's
working class art. Despite his wealthy patrons, Rivera was a committed Mexican
radical, and was astounded to soon learn who Hal really was. Rivera immediately
made plans to seek Trotsky's entry into Mexico. In the meantime, Rivera found
new work in the U.S. in 1933, this time in New York. There, he was commissioned
to paint a huge mural at Rockefeller Center. After many long months of toil,
as the painting neared completion, the Rockefellers ordered the project to be
immediately stopped. They were shocked to see unveiled in Rivera's mural a large
bust of Vladimir Lenin. Rivera was sent packing, and was escorted under close
guard out of the U.S. back to Mexico. The mural was then destroyed.
During this time, Leon and Diego (and also Frida)
would meet when the Indians were in town against the Yankees. When Rivera was
finally banished, Leon happened to be back in New York again for another three-game
series. To help Diego avoid detection, Leon agreed to take Rivera's blueprints
for the Rockefeller mural, and smuggle them out of the U.S., and back to Diego
in Mexico. This Leon accomplished on his own trip back to Mexico City the following
winter. Rivera used the plans to faithfully reproduce the destroyed mural, which
now adorns a great wall in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts. In the new version,
the grateful Rivera offered to replace Lenin's bust with Trotsky's but Leon
declined. Rivera nevertheless found permanent housing for Leon, and the incident
cemented the friendship between the two men. It would last several years, until
a conflict intervened.
Historians claim that Rivera broke with Trotsky
either for love or politics. Some believe Diego resented the attention Frida
increasingly lavished on Leon. She became his regular companion, sometimes spending
long evenings alone with the revolutionary. Others believe Diego and Leon clashed
over politics. Despite his initial misgivings, Rivera began to see Stalin's
rule as inevitable for preserving the Russian Revolution, a model for revolution
around the world. Of course, this was something Leon could never tolerate. In
his view, Stalin would have to be removed at all costs. Actually, neither of
these issues split Rivera and Trotsky apart. The real dispute, reminiscent of
Trotsky's early battles with Stalin, centered again around baseball. Leon was
annoyed that while in the U.S., Diego would almost purposely root for the hometown
Tigers and then the Yankees against Trotsky's Indians, who Leon took very seriously.
For his part, Diego couldn't understand Leon's willingness to play for a team
with a mascot as blatantly racist as Chief Wahoo and the Indians. As someone
who had been a Red all his life, Trotsky couldn't see the problem. Besides,
hadn't the Indians been named as a tribute to the first Native American star,
Lou Sockalexis? Rivera called this a blatant distortion, a public relations
concoction of the Cleveland organization. The battle raged until neither could
bear it any longer.
But in 1937, a couple of years before this break,
Rivera served as one of Leon's staunchest defenders. Diego was actively involved
in the Dewey Commission investigation of the charges brought against Trotsky
by Josef Stalin. Led by the prominent American philosopher and educator, John
Dewey, the Commission sought to make an independent evaluation of Leon's case.
Their conclusion was that the charges were groundless.
Among the other members of the Commission was
the U.S. writer, JamesT. Farrell. A committed radical himself, Farrell had come
to increasingly regard Trotsky not only as innocent but as something of a hero.
It's curious about Farrell. Among his most famous works were his Studs Lonigan
novels, in which baseball figured noticeably. Then later in his career, Farrell
wrote an entire book on the sport, My Baseball Diary. In the interim, Trotsky
and Farrell had become quite close, and despite his Chicago roots, James followed
the Indians quite avidly. Farrell also knew Chicago White Sox owner Charles
Comiskey. It may be more than a coincidence that Leon played his last two years
with the White Sox. Quite likely Farrell knew Trosky's baseball secret.
While vindicated by the Dewey Commission, the
year 1937 also brought more tragedy. Leon's older son, Lyova, had followed in
his father's revolutionary footsteps, working in and out of the Soviet Union
in the 1930s. This only made him an additional target of Stalin. The Dewey report
may have pushed Stalin to the brink: if he couldn't yet bring down Leon, then
his son would be fair game. That year, Lyova, who had always enjoyed good health,
was suddenly struck down, and rushed to a Parisian hospital where he died under
mysterious circumstances. Leon always blamed himself for Lyova's death.
In 1937, in his article, "Red Smith Meets Red
Trotsky,"the sportswriter Red Smith describes a meeting he had with Leon while
visiting Mexico City. Smith was there as a reporter covering a series of exhibition
games between Mexican professional teams and the visiting Philadelphia Athletics.
Smith used the piece essentially to make fun of Trotsky and his revolutionary
fervor. The interview, of course, never took place with the real Trotsky but
rather with one of Leon's stand-ins, and thus it seems that Trotsky had the
In contrast, Stalin's failure to sway international
opinion against Trotsky was no laughing matter. Instead it only made him more
desperate to have Leon assassinated. On the heels of the Dewey Commission report,
Leon published his most far-reaching anti-Stalinist work, The Revolution Betrayed.
While Trotsky magically appeared outside Paris to convene the Fourth International,
he remained well protected. Back in Cleveland, during the 1938 season, Hal turned
in another great year, although his home run total declined to 19. Even so,
he seemed well on his way to the Hall of Fame, a thought that both pleased and
frightened Trotsky. Among his teammates, Hal developed a reputation for being
a loner. Much of it was attributed to his chronic migraines. Yet Trotsky had
other, more important, motives for remaining isolated. And thus, 1939 also passed
quietly, even though Hal turned in his fifth consecutive all-star season.
But by the next year, the spotlight caught Leon,
despite his best efforts. The publicity was bad enough; even worse was the bad
light in which he was cast. The 1940 season became known as the year of the
Crybaby Indians. George Vitt had been the Indians manager since 1938.
He was a fiery, nervous man who criticized his players both publicly and behind
their backs. He routinely called his players names while they sat on the bench,
often throwing in religious and racial epithets. Vitt directed several bitter
tirades at the young, star pitcher, Bob Feller. Vitt also blasted two other
stars, pitcher Mel Harder, and Hal Trosky. Vitt took offense at Hal's complaints
about a game the team played under cold, rainy conditions. Beyond these stars,
discontent against Vitt spread throughout much of the team.
A rebellion was finally organized, and a group
of players met with Indians owner, Alva Bradley. But Bradley shunned their concerns,
instead pushing what would ultimately be a failed truce between the players
and Vitt. On their own, the players rallied to remain competitive, but they
refused to speak to Vitt and made up their own signs to avoid his on-field directions.
Hal's old friend, Diego Rivera, took morbid delight in cabling Trotsky with
his support for the Tigers, with whom the Indians were locked in a tight pennant
race. Thus Leon was especially bitter when Cleveland lost the pennant to Detroit
in the last series of the year.
The Cleveland fans, rather than sympathizing with
the players, instead jeered them, taunting them as crybabies. The situation
became something of a nationwide scandal as the media, too, sided with management.
The story trumped the German occupation of Paris off the front-page headlines,
not only in Cleveland but in several other cities. Of course, the last thing
Trotsky needed was this kind of publicity. Even so, Leon was most likely one
of the rebellion's ringleaders. After helping organize the meeting with Bradley,
Trotsky suddenly dropped out at the last minute, purportedly in response to
the news that his mother had just died back in Iowa. His mother, of course,
had actually died years earlier in the Ukraine. While he missed the meeting,
it's the subject of some debate whether he called Bradley to confirm his own
complaints about the manager. In any case, his absence allowed Bradley to view
Hal as a more neutral party among the players. Vitt assumed this, too; he tried
to make peace with the players, and designated Trosky as the team captain in
Even so, Hal was abused by the fans, many of whom
remained convinced he was the ungrateful ringleader. In 1944, Trosky reflected
back on this period, and told The Sporting News: "I was never the ringleader
of any bickering. I know Iive been accused of it; maybe it's just because of
my name." What would have otherwise been a risky statement was rendered harmless
by the events of the intervening years: in 1940, it was assumed that the real
Leon Trotsky had been murdered by Stalin in Mexico City. According to the reporter,
Jack De Vries, "Trosky thought his Russian-sounding name, especially during
World War II, might have had some fans concluding he had revolutionary
ideas about inciting his fellow players." And indeed he did.
Outside baseball, Stalin's international murder
campaign against Trotsky also came to a head in 1940. Earlier in the year, a
failed assassination attempt was made against Leon in his Mexico City home by
a group organized by one of Diego Rivera's fellow, radical Mexican muralists:
David Sequeiros. Far more than Rivera's conviction about Stalin's inevitabilty,
Sequeiros embraced the Soviet leader, viewing Trotsky as the real threat, and
a threat residing in his own backyard in Mexico City!
A second assassination attempt was made against
Leon later in 1940, and it produced the scene that's now so well preserved at
the Trotsky house and museum in Mexico City. According to the story, Leon's
trusted secretary was actually a Stalinist agent, and he turned on Trotsky one
day with the infamous icepick. The murder generated worldwide media coverage.
It even made the sports pages in the U.S.: The Boston Globe joked that,
"Trotsky's career as a Red ends in Mexico due to a deceptive pick-off move."
The Washington Post wryly added that Trotsky had died as a result of
a "freak accident in the Mexican League." How ironic that they would have picked
But Stalin was not the only one with imposters.
On August 21, 1940, the day of the fatal assassination, Trotsky was nowhere
near Mexico City. Instead, he was alive and well, playing out his last great
season. That day the Indians were in Boston, and Hal went two for four, with
two doubles and two runs batted in against the Red Sox. Even Trotsky's stand-in
escaped all harm. The entire murder was faked, with the help of the Mexican
government. In 1934 Lazaro Cardenas was elected as Mexican president. He turned
out to be the last of the revolutionary leaders to make good on promises
to labor and the peasantry. He presided over extensive land redistribution.
And most dramatically, he nationalized all U.S. oil companies, nearly provoking
another U.S. invasion of Mexico. Cardenas strongly sympathized with Trotsky,
and thus a plan was devised to get Stalin permanently off Leon's trail. The
assassination was staged, as was the arrest, the funeral and Trotsky's cremation.
A stone marker bearing the Communist insignia of the hammer and sickle marks
the site, on the patio of Trotsky's Mexico City residence, where Leon's ashes
are said to be buried. Leon's purported murderer was a Mexican prisoner who
received certain privileges and a reduced sentence for his role in the plan.
With this, Trotsky's life was spared but his revolutionary
activism was, by necessity, virtually ended. Leon was thus left only with his
second love, baseball. Yet Trotsky's faked assassination via an icepick to
the brain may have carried some symbolic importance. Leon had survived the
headaches of George Vitt, of Josef Stalin, and even of his would-be assassin
but he couldn't shake his migraines. By 1941, his headaches became so severe
that he began missing one game after another. Then he broke his thumb. On August
21, the one year anniversary of his assassination, Leon left the Indians for
good, never to return.
The migraines continued in 1942 and 1943. Unable
to play major league baseball, Leon worked in a factory and on a farm in the
midst of America's involvement in World War II. In 1944, Trotsky was signed
by one of Charles Comiskey's sons to a contract with the Chicago White Sox.
Although he managed to play in 135 games, his comeback was a failure. He hit
only .241 with 10 home runs, far below his usual production. He was out of baseball
again in 1945 but gave it one final try in 1946, when he was back again playing
for the White Sox. This time he was good for only 88 games, and it would be
his last season in the major leagues. Besides his migraines, Leon was by that
time in his late 40s, and thus his comeback failure is not surprising. Nor is
his inability to fully live up to his Hall of Fame potential; he began his career
far too late to sustain his impressive numbers. Even so, in the end Trosky finished
with 228 home runs and a .302 lifetime batting average. For six straight seasons,
from 1934 to 1939, Trosky drove in over 100 runs, averaging 127 per season.
He had a lifetime fielding average over .990. For a short stretch, he was one
of baseball's greatest players. One could only imagine what would have been
on his Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown had history worked out differently.
Despite his retirement as a player, Leon was far
from done with baseball. In 1944, Phil Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and
owner of the Chicago Cubs, proposed the idea of a professional women's baseball
league. With Leon's influence, Wrigley got the idea from Trotsky's wife, Evelyn,
while the couple was living in Chicago. Trotsky always believed that women should
be allowed to play hardball like the men. The result was the creation of the
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, with eight women's teams playing
mostly in Midwest cities. Much to Trotsky's disappointment, the League lasted
only until the mid-1950s. As in the broader economy, the men were now back from
World War II, and the women were expected to leave the factories and the playing
fields, and return to the household. Even so, women's baseball was an endeavor
Leon never stopped pushing.
While Trotsky had few ties left with the Indians,
he was intrigued by the new ownership. Bill Veeck had bought the Cleveland team
in the early 1940s. Hal had begun, grudgingly, to grasp his old friend Diego
Rivera's point about the Cleveland mascot, and he pressed Veeck, in the spirit
of ending racial discrimination, to finally change the Indians' name. Veeck
was not persuaded but Trotsky influenced Veeck on similar initiatives. Before
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Veeck sought to purchase a second team,
the Philadelphia Phillies. He apparently had in mind the controversial plan
to stock the Phillies entirely with players from the Negro Leagues but the other
owners blocked the deal. Even so, right after Robinson, Veeck made Larry Doby
the first black player to be signed in the American League. Other black stars,
such as Satchel Paige, soon followed Doby to the Indians.
By the mid-1940s, Leon had returned to Mexico,
amused at the memorials that had been erected for him. Trotsky could do very
little any more for world revolution yet he couldn't resist getting involved
in smaller rebellions. Among his initiatives was his support for the Mexican
businessman, Jorge Pasqual, who owned one of Mexico's leading baseball teams.
How could Leon resist backing someone with a team named the Mexico City Reds?
Pasqual decided to challenge the U.S. major leagues. Taking full advantage of
the growing frustration U.S. players were feeling toward most of the major league
owners, Pasqual conducted a raid on American teams. American players were invited
to jump from the majors to the Mexican League, where Pasqual was prepared to
significantly improve their wages and conditions. Major League Baseball had
long before established itself as a monopoly, exempt from anti-trust regulations.
Trotsky hated that system, and its main pillar, the reserve clause, which bound
players, like slaves, to their original teams for life. It made perfect sense
to encourage Pasqual. Trotsky would also later meet and influence Curt Flood,
whose challenge to the reserve clause finally produced the free agency system
in the 1970s, and freedom for all baseball labor.
By the 1940s, former U.S. Senator, Happy Chandler
had become the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. In the end, the baseball
owners dumped Chandler for being too even-handed with the players. But Chandler
did initially take a firm stand against the players who jumped to the Mexican
League. For those he could not stop with threats, he nevertheless sanctioned
and blacklisted when they sought to return to U.S. baseball. Chandler was shocked
to discover, however, that the major league owners had been bargaining behind
his back with Jorge Pasqual to try to buy him off. Leon made contact with the
disillusioned Chandler, and urged him to reconsider his handling of the players.
Chandler was thus convinced to rescind the Mexican League punishments. And more
important, it pushed him to make one other bold initiative before he was inevitably
fired by the owners: to give his stamp of approval to breaking the color barrier,
which Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey accomplished in 1947. Leon was at Ebbets
Field for Robinson's first game as a Dodger.
In 1950, Leon finally got some relief from his
long battle with migraines.
He accidentally discovered that he was allergic
to tobacco--which he chewed (and which was the one exception to his otherwise
healthy lifestyle), and to dairy products--especially raw dairy products (which
he regularly consumed since moving to his Iowa farm in 1929). Throughout the
1950s, Leon scouted for the Chicago White Sox, mostly in Latin America and the
Caribbean. He spent a lot of time in Mexico, and on one of his trips to Venezuela,
he discovered and signed future Hall of Famer, Luis Aparicio. Leon's younger
son, Sergey Sedov, supposedly also died at the hands of Stalin. But instead
he merely went underground, and finally escaped Russia for the U.S., only to
follow in his fatherís footsteps: This time it wasn't politics but rather
baseball. Hal Trosky, Jr. played baseball professionally for 11 years, making
it to the major leagues, as a pitcher for the White Sox, for only two games,
After his scouting days, Leon returned to Iowa
to work his farm, and to become an insurance salesman until his retirement in
the 1970sóa far cry from his revolutionary youth. But he made one final
contribution to baseball: In 1972, Leon sold his farm in Norway, and bought
a new one in nearby Dyersville, Iowa. Upon his death, the Dyersville farm was
resold, and became the site in the 1980s for the filming of the baseball movie,
The Field of Dreams. To this day, tourists and diehard baseball fans come from
all over the country and world to visit the ballpark carved out of cornfields.
Leon would have approved. In 1979, it was reported that Hal Trosky died of a
heart attack at the age of 66. Indeed, Leon's heart had given out, but by that
time he was actually 82óhe had lived a long and productive, if not unusual,
o this day, many wonder whether history would
have been different had it been Leon Trotsky rather than Josef Stalin who had
gained control over the Soviet Union. The USSR might have gone a different,
less tragic direction, shunning totalitarian communism in favor of socialism
with a human face. The Cold War with the U.S. might have been avoided. More
important, many wonder whether baseball history would have also been different
had Hal Trosky not been felled by chronic headaches. What if his revolutionary
politics had not delayed his baseball career, robbing him of valuable and productive
years? He would now likely be in the Hall of Fame, and we'd be talking about
Hal Trosky rather than Babe Ruth. What a different world it would be.