SAM LACY: BLACK CRUSADER

A resolute writer helped bring change to sports
October 29, 1990

To reach his office at the Afro-American newspapers in Baltimore, sports editor Sam Lacy ascends three flights of stairs, 36 steps in all, three times a week, in a building lacking—for the moment, and from time immemorial—an elevator. And in a normal workday, Lacy charges downstairs and up three or four times, commuting from the city room on the third floor to the business office on the first and the composing room on the second. That's a lot of climbing for a man whose 87th birthday was Oct. 23, and who is in his 60th year as a working newspaperman. But Lacy doesn't mind it one bit. What is life, after all, but an uphill pull. He'll take his ups and downs, sustained as he is by a most workable philosophy:

"If you're born black," Lacy says, "you know when you wake up in the morning that the day ahead can't be any worse than the one before. So you take a positive attitude from there. All blacks have a birthmark of optimism."

Lacy's own intractable optimism has served him well throughout his years. When he attended Oriole games this season in once segregated Baltimore he saw a black manager commanding white and black players together on the field. "That pleases me," Lacy says. "I am also pleased that Bill White was named president of the National League. There is an irony there, you know, because the National League has only had one black manager, our Frank Robinson, when he was with the San Francisco Giants."

That baseball has come as far as it has in racial integration—on the playing field, at least—is due in no small part to Lacy himself, who, along with other black newspapermen of their time, particularly the late Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and the late Joe Bostic of the now defunct People's Voice in Harlem, campaigned to desegregate the game years before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodger organization. The saga of Lacy, Smith, Bostic and other black sportswriters is a chapter in the Robinson story left unwritten by those who lived it. As author Jules Tygiel recounted in his 1983 history of those years, Baseball's Great Experiment: "They [the writers] too were victims of Jim Crow.... Segregation hid their considerable skills from the larger white audience and severely restricted their income-earning potential. Yet they rarely mentioned their own plight. Indeed, the barriers for black journalists lasted long after those for athletes disappeared."

Lacy is a wiry man, short and slim, with sharp facial features inherited from his mother, Rose, a Shinnecock Indian. He looks no older than 55 and plays golf almost every nonworking day, shooting roughly his age at the short Rock Creek course near his home in northeast Washington, D.C. He was born in Mystic, Conn., but when he was two, his family moved to Washington, a city then as racially segregated as any in the Deep South. The Lacy family had a long history of breaching the racial barricades. Lacy's grandfather, Henry Erskine Lacy, was the first black detective on the Washington police force. His father, Samuel Erskine Lacy, was a researcher in a law office, a rare position of responsibility for a black man in the early part of this century. Young Sam inherited from his father a love of sport, particularly of Clark Griffith's old Washington Senators. "My father was a dyed-in-the-wool fan," he says. "He'd sit out in the Jim Crow section in rightfield almost every game." As a teenager, Lacy shagged flies at Griffith Stadium during batting practice for such stars as Goose Goslin, Joe Judge, Clyde Milan and Walter Johnson, and worked as a vendor in the stands. He also played semipro ball in all-black leagues in and around Washington, often against such stars of the Negro leagues as Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, John Henry Lloyd and Martin Dihigo. His exposure to the best of both black and white baseball gave him a rare perspective.

"I was in a position to make some comparisons, and it seemed to me that those black players were good enough to play in the big leagues," Lacy says. "There was, of course, no talk then of that ever happening. When I was growing up, there was no real opportunity for blacks in any sport. It never crossed our minds as kids to aspire to the big leagues. Even the best players considered it a lost cause. But the idea stuck with me. I felt that not only were blacks being deprived of the opportunity to make some money but that whites were being deprived of the opportunity to see these fellows perform. I could see that both were being cheated. And so, with a certain amount of ego, I took it upon myself to be the wedge."

Lacy was an all-sports star—playing football, baseball and basketball—at Armstrong High in Washington, and he earned a bachelor's degree in education at Howard University with every intention of becoming a coach. But he had worked part-time for The Washington Tribune, a black weekly that is now defunct, and decided on a career in journalism. He joined the Tribune full-time in 1930, "doing a little bit of everything," he says. "The average black reporter of my age is generally pretty well-rounded"—presuming, that is, there are any reporters, black, white or anything else, his age. Lacy eventually landed a job with Tribune sports editor William Lautier. And on Oct. 23, 1937, the day of the Maryland-Syracuse football game in College Park, Md., Lacy wrote a story that exposed racism at its most hypocritical in college athletics.

Syracuse's star passer was a halfback named Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, known as "the Manhattan Hindu," who was supposedly the first Indian ever to play American football. Maryland was then a segregated school that refused to countenance any competition with blacks. But the color line did not extend, apparently, to a purported Brahman, and Sidat-Singh was scheduled to take the field with the lily-white Terps that Saturday afternoon. Lacy learned that Wilmeth was born in Washington, the son of black parents, Elias and Pauline Webb, and that after Elias's death Pauline married Dr. Samuel Sidat-Singh, an Indian surgeon who adopted Wilmeth and moved the family to New York.

After Lacy's story appeared, Maryland refused to allow Sidat-Singh on its field. Without him, previously unbeaten Syracuse lost 13-0. In his account of the game, Lacy wrote: "An undefeated football record went by the boards here today as racial bigotry substituted for sportsmanship and resulted in the removal of the spark plug from the machine which was Syracuse University's football team.... Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a Negro who had won his way into the hearts of his Syracuse teammates and student associates, was denied the privilege of playing in today's 'contest' when Maryland University [sic] officials learned his nationality and demanded removal...."

A few months later, Lacy approached Griffith, the Senators' owner, with a proposal to integrate the ball club. Griffith listened patiently, then protested that if he hired blacks he would be contributing to the demise of the Negro leagues. Lacy was unimpressed. "The Negro leagues were a symbol of segregation," Lacy says. "If they had become successful, the world outside might never have known of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The black leagues were separate and unequal."

In 1940, Lacy joined another black paper, the Chicago Defender, and continued the fight. Bostic and Smith, who was a friend of Robinson's, joined voices with Lacy, as did such well-known white sportswriters as Bob Considine, whose reporting was nationally syndicated, John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News and Gordon Cobbledick of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Communist Daily Worker also became, for Lacy, an unwelcome participant in the movement. Celebrities were getting into the act. Lacy, for example, was supposed to appear at the 1943 baseball meetings in Cleveland to plead his case. But at the last minute, the Defender decided for publicity reasons to send the famous actor-singer Paul Robeson in his place. Robeson was eloquent, arguing, "They said that America would never stand for my playing Othello with a white cast, but it is the triumph of my life." His far-left politics, however, were not likely to impress ultraconservative commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the baseball establishment.

The next year, several months before Landis's death, Lacy, now at the Afro-American, wrote to all of the owners suggesting that an integration committee be set up. A short time later, he was appointed to such a committee, along with Rickey, representing the National League, Larry MacPhail of the Yankees, representing the American League, and Philadelphia magistrate Joseph H. Rainey. Rickey and Lacy met twice, but, according to Lacy, "MacPhail always found a way to be too busy for us," and the full committee never met. Soon, Rickey told Lacy, somewhat mysteriously, that he was going to work on integrating baseball on his own. Then, in April of 1945, the owners picked a Southern politician, A.B. (Happy) Chandler, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, as Landis's successor.

After that, events began to move rapidly. With Chandler's wholehearted support—"I don't believe in barring Negroes from baseball just because they are Negroes," he was quoted as saying—Rickey broke the color line by signing Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers' Triple A farm team in Montreal on Oct. 23, 1945, Lacy's 42nd birthday.

The Afro-American gave Lacy the Robinson beat, the biggest sports assignment in history for a black sportswriter. "Jackie was not the best player in the Negro leagues," Lacy says, "but he was the most suitable. Oh, that's a terrible word, suitable. But he was the right man. He had gone to a racially-mixed college, been an Army officer and had been such a football star at UCLA that he was used to media attention." Another black, pitcher John Wright, joined Robinson in the minors.

The black players and writers endured together. A cross was burned on the lawn of the boardinghouse where they stayed before an exhibition game in Macon, Ga. When Robinson and the black writers were rebuffed at the gates of a ballpark in Sanford, Fla., during spring training, Robinson found a loose board in an outfield fence for them to sneak through. Lacy, denied access to press boxes while barnstorming that first year, was allowed by Rickey to report from the Dodger dugout. In New Orleans, Lacy was banished to the press-box roof, where, to his tearful delight, he was joined by a contingent of white writers from New York. "They told me they just wanted to get a tan up there," says Lacy. "But they already had tans. They'd been in Florida a month."

Tom Swope, chairman of the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, banned Lacy from the press box at Crosley Field during Robinson's rookie season with the Dodgers, and a functionary at Yankee Stadium wouldn't let him into a 1947 World Series game even though he had the proper credentials. "Milton Richman of the United Press came by then and jumped all over this guy, telling him that my pass was just as good as his," Lacy says. "The guy finally relented." The newspaper fraternity, with a few nasty exceptions, backed Lacy and his black confreres throughout these trying early days, and in 1948, Lacy became the first black member of the Baseball Writers' Association.

But Lacy never wrote about his own struggles. He wrote only about Robinson's ordeal—and Rickey's. "Jackie was such a strong individual," he says. "I both liked and admired him. I always said I wanted my son, Tim, to grow up to be like him, and in many respects he has.

"But Jackie wasn't the only one under pressure. Rickey had a terrific amount of it. Here he was, the man who hired Jackie. Then he was having trouble with [manager Leo] Durocher, who got banned by Chandler in '47 for bad associations. And Durocher's wife, Laraine Day, was after Rickey to keep Leo in line. And with all of this, Rickey was having health problems. I think that man should be made a saint."

Lacy did not rest his case after Robinson, however. He fought next to integrate the hotels where major league players stayed on the road. "Now, I ask you, what sense did it make to have such high-priced talent living apart from the rest of the team?" he says. "I think the Giants, before they moved to San Francisco, were the first to realize how foolish this was. It was before an exhibition game against the old Coast League Seals in San Francisco when I pointed out to Chub Feeney [then the team's general manager] that he had guys like Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson holed up in some little hotel while the rest of the players, people who might never even wear a major league uniform, were staying at the famous Palace. Chub just looked at me and said, 'Sam, you're right.' He got on the phone to [owner] Horace Stoneham, and that was the end of that."

In 1984, Lacy became the first black journalist to be enshrined in the Maryland Media Hall of Fame. A year later, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. He has served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and on the Baseball Hall of Fame's selection committee for the Negro leagues. And John Steadman, sports columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun, has proposed him for election to the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, an honor for which he seems more than qualified.

A widower, Lacy lives alone in an apartment in northeast Washington. His office is about an hour away, but he makes the drive alone three days a week. And then he mounts those 36 stairs. He has to. "I've stayed here so long," he says, "because they gave me an opportunity when no other paper in America would. Loyalty is worth more than money." Besides, there's more to be done, he says: Black businessmen have to take a more active part in sports; baseball needs more black executives.

Back in his apartment, Lacy is thumbing through scrapbooks filled with memorabilia. "I told you my father was a dyed-in-the-wool fan," he says. "Well, that he was, right up to the age of 79. Back then, there was always a parade of players to the ballpark on Opening Day. Fans like my father would line up for hours to watch their heroes pass by. And so there he was, age 79, out there cheering with the rest of them, calling all the players by name, just happy to be there. And then it happened. One of the white players—I won't say which one—just gave him this nasty look and, as he passed by, spat right in his face. Right in that nice old man's face. That hurt my father terribly. And you know, as big a fan as he had been, he never went to another game as long as he lived, which was seven more years. Oh, we've come a long way since then. But we've still got a long way to go."

PHOTOSpring training in Arizona, 1951: Lacy (standing at left) with black players for the Indians and the Giants, including Mays. TWO PHOTOSLacy with Robinson and Joe Louis in '48 (left). It was in '37 that Lacy revealed Sidat-Singh was black (below). PHOTOIn 1959, Lacy's friend outfielder Al Smith (far left) was playing for the White Sox, then owned by Bill Veeck. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGLacy still works at the "Afro-American" in Baltimore three days a week.
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