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  • The Secret Life of Leon TrotskyBaseball and the Revolution
  • Robert Elias (bio)

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 the 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-the year he was assassinated. As we walk through the building, we see the double, bulletproof 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 ice pick was cruelly thrust into his skull by a Stalinist thug posing as Trotsky's trusted assistant. There lie 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 Indians."

Even conventional biographies of Trotsky admit that he visited the United States: 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 [End Page 131] 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 bookDiamonds 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 United States through Russian settlements on the West Coast of North America in the eighteenth century.

The writer, John Leo, dates lapta's arrival in the United States 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...


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