There was a lot of lore in our family but one of my favorite bits of it was my father’s great pride at having hired the first two black office workers at Doubleday in the 1950s. This was particularly cheeky for the guy who was the only Jew in top management ranks. The way I always understood the story from him was that after the second one was hired Doubleday management said, “ok, Len. That’s enough.”
Dad died in 2002. In September, 2006, I was at a party with my two sisters and my mother. I didn’t know it then, but this was going to be the last party I would go to with my mother. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about two weeks later and she died in January 2007. So what follows is a story very fortunate for the timing of its telling. I almost didn’t know it.
I was telling somebody at the party about Dad and the first two black employees of Doubleday in the 1950s. My sister Karen thought she noticed something wrong with the way I was presenting the story (I can’t now remember what) so we went off to find Mom to get it retold.
“Mom, what was the story with Dad being told by Doubleday that he couldn’t hire another black employee?”
My father’s memory used to have a lot of holes in it. Mom’s had none. She gave you the details like yesterday.
“You remember the summer we went to Cape Cod with the Tiloves and the Popkins?”
I’m pretty good, too. “Yes, that was 1959. Dad was reading an advance copy of Advise and Consent, which was just about to come out and he knew it was going to be a bestseller.”
“Your father did want to hire another black employee. And just before we went up to Cape Cod, he offered another young man a job. Then, while we were up there, he got a call from Louise Thomas, who was in charge of personnel at Doubleday telling him he had to rescind the offer.”
I had never heard this part. My sister Karen had never heard this part. My sister Nance wasn’t standing there at that moment but she had never heard this part either.
“So, Mom, what did he do.”
“Well, you know your father. He would never agree to something like that. He said he had made the offer and he absolutely would not rescind it.”
There was something very literal about my Mom. She had answered the question. So she stopped. We waited.
“Mom. What HAPPENED?”
“Oh, the young man turned down the offer. He didn’t take the job. So, nothing happened.”
My father was the luckiest guy on the planet. He didn’t have to compromise his principles and he didn’t have to go to war with his employers.
I actually met both of the men Dad hired before I knew any of this. The second of the two is Charles Harris, who has had a long and distinguished career in publishing. Charlie was the longtime director of Howard University Press and founder of Amistad. He was able to remind me that the groundbreaker was a man named Ed Simmons, who later owned a printing operation on Long Island. Charlie was able to provide a lot more detail that I didn’t know.
Simmons had an MBA from Harvard and was a veteran of World War II. (My dad wasn’t; he spent the war working on the Manhattan Project, but that’s another story.) Dad was in charge of manufacturing when he hired Simmons in about 1954 or 1955. Simmons left to buy the printer in 1958.
Harris was hired in 1956 to work in what was called the Operations Research Department (of DOUBLEDAY!), which my father headed as Director of Research. (And that’s anotherstory.) George Blagowidow was the manager of the department, but Dad (George’s boss) hired Charlie while Blagowidow was off on vacation (Dad wasn’t much of a respecter of protocol.)
Harris reports that Dad and Blagowidow encouraged him to go to NYU Graduate School and major in statistics and Doubleday paid the tuition.
I asked Charlie if he knew he was “pioneering.” He said no, but he realized it after a few months. My father never discussed it with him; not did anybody else. Charlie had arrived in NY, just discharged from the U.S. Army where he had been one of the few African American officers to graduate from Infantry School at Fort Benning. Charlie said that my father had recruited through Ray Rivera of The Urban League and Rivera arranged the interview for Charlie with Dad. After the interview, Dad walked Charlie down to Personnel and told them he wanted to hire him.
Charlie said, “that was August 12, 1956. I reported to work the next day.”
My father left Doubleday in 1961. Harris became an editor there about the time Dad left, but was encouraged for the next several years by Nelson Doubleday and John Sargent. And one job later, Harris went to Random House and was working again with former Doubleday colleagues Jason Epstein and Dick Kislik. It was nice to get this ending to the story. The fact that Harris’s career thrived at Doubleday for several years after my father left speaks well for everybody.
I am a student of baseball history and while pulling together my thoughts for this piece I really thought for the first time about what Dad did in the context of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. This was all happening while Robinson was still an active player, before any civil rights bills had passed, at a time when public segregation was the practice in a quarter of the country.
I spent more hours in conversation with my father than I have with anybody else in my life, except possibly my wife. It’s really too bad we didn’t talk about this more.