Branch Rickey didn’t know Jackie Robinson when the great experiment to integrate baseball began in the 1940s. OK, Rickey knew Robinson was a great Negro leagues baseball player, knew he had gone to UCLA and lettered in four sports -- football, basketball, track and field and baseball. But Rickey didn’t know if Robinson had the personality and temperament necessary to handle being cursed or spat at or told he couldn’t stay with his teammates at the team hotel as would inevitably happen to the first black player in the majors.
Sam Lacy knew Robinson inside and out, knew he was the best man -- if not the best player -- for the mission and repeatedly told Rickey that. In fact, Rickey wasn’t the first to set out on a crusade to end segregation in the major leagues. Sam Lacy did that, started the crusade right here in Washington in 1938 when he approached Clark Griffith and suggested, to his face and in print, that he bring black ballplayers to the Senators. Black players were being denied the opportunity to play, and white fans were being denied the opportunity to see them, so both were being cheated, Lacy wrote.
You can’t write the history of sports and race in America without devoting a chapter to Sam Lacy, the extraordinary columnist of the Baltimore Afro-American the last 64 years, of the Chicago Defender before that, and the Washington Tribune before that. He and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier were on the front lines like no other writers in the mission for racial and cultural inclusion at a time when that conflict defined America.
So it is with great sadness those of us in the storytelling profession and in the crusading profession received the news Friday that Lacy died five months before his 100th birthday. He had Red Smith’s eloquence, Dave Anderson’s class, Shirley Povich’s passion, and his own way of demanding fairness and inclusion without crossing the line of righteous indignation.
Povich, who died at 92, and Lacy were writing, reporting, teaching and mentoring right up until the time they died. There’s been no award or citation that means as much to me as a handwritten note from Sam Lacy for what he deemed to be a well-written column.
Ballplayers today talk of being disrespected if they’re offered $40 million instead of $60 million. Let me tell you a story about disrespect.
With black Washingtonians already relegated to the coloreds-only right field stands at Griffith Stadium in the 1920s, Lacy accompanied his dad to an Opening Day parade for the Washington Senators as they filed into the ballpark. He and his dad stood on a sidewalk cheering when a Senators player, whom Lacy never would identify publicly, spat in the senior Lacy’s face, simply for being black.
Certainly it wouldn’t be Lacy’s last indignity to suffer. Who do you think stayed in family homes and segregated hotels with Jackie Robinson when he entered the big leagues and had to play in places such as Cincinnati and St. Louis, not to mention spring training stops in Florida? Lacy was once forced to sit in his own segregated press box on the field, down the first base line. In New Orleans for a spring training exhibition, he was banned from that press box and sent to the roof. This time the famous New York columnist Dick Young climbed upstairs, too. And when Lacy asked why Young and a trail of white writers had come up to the roof, Young said, “To work on our tans.”
Lest we think these incidents happened only in the South, Lacy was denied entrance by some lackey to Yankee Stadium even though he had the proper credentials to cover the 1947 World Series. In the 1950s, with players such as Willie Mays and Ernie Banks still unable to stay in team hotels, Lacy lobbied for Giants executive Chub Feeney to intervene, and within days at least the Giants stopped the practice of segregating their players on the road.
Of course, none of us who have come after Lacy can imagine enduring such treatment. And those of us who have enjoyed Lacy’s company and intellect, his insight and mentoring over the years, struggle to understand how a man treated so shabbily for so many years, remained so upbeat, so positive, so sweet of disposition, and so free from bitterness. I can’t remember Lacy ever cursing, can’t recall him demonstrating any outward anger, or for that matter even frowning.
He obviously had toughness, but it always understated, even the time when he told an increasingly discouraged Robinson in 1946 that he knew when he embarked upon this mission it would be terribly difficult, but that there was too much at stake for too many for him to quit. Of course, Robinson listened to Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy as they spent those uncertain, historic, sometimes uneasy times on the road at the beginning of his major league journey.
The folks in Baltimore and Washington who bought the Afro-American had the pleasure of reading Lacy, who wrote with a precision and style and insight of a man observing the scene from the front row, but the soul and conviction of a man often forced to watch from the back row. It’s that juxtaposition that will make Sam Lacy impossible to replace or duplicate, and necessary to read, re-read and treasure.