When Sam Lacy walked into his surprise party Tuesday morning and everybody started singing "Happy Birthday," he sang along for a moment, grandly and on-key, and then threw in a postscript.
"My birthday's not until Saturday," he said, voice climbing through a series of octaves. "At my age, you're not supposed to rush things. And you people are pushing me closer."
He will be 90 years old on Saturday. He has been writing his sports column for the Afro-American for more than half a century. Three times a week he still drives in from his home in Washington, arriving at the newspaper's new Charles Street offices between 4 and 5 in the morning, where he works his eight hours and then spends the afternoon playing nine holes of golf.
"I don't know about all this publicity," he was saying Tuesday, as well-wishers surrounded him. "People hear I'm 90, what kind of endorsement is that for the young ladies?" Then, turning to hug a lady friend, he winked at a buddy standing nearby and declared, "Eat your heart out."
He's a treasure, this Sam Lacy. He was working when the great Walter Johnson was still wearing a Washington Nationals baseball uniform, and Lacy sat there Tuesday and casually listed the club's starting pitching rotation. From 1924.
He was there when Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball -- with no little insistence from Lacy, in print and in meetings with baseball's quivering white executives -- and he virtually held Robinson's hand through the tough early years of ,, shared rejection, of separate housing, of racial threats.
He was pals with Joe Louis and with Jesse Owens, and he argued with both passion and reasonableness for the early black pro athletes here like Buddy Young, the ones who were not only integrating professional leagues but awakening a collective conscience.
And on Tuesday, he glanced around the crowded conference room at the Afro, saw generations of men and women who have kept the newspaper alive through the most bruising social confrontations of this century, and formally declared:
"You have all made life a pleasure for me. All of you. And I appreciate that most. What's closest to my heart are friends like you, and a smile from God."
And then, not to get too serious, he added, "This looks like a wake. I've never seen so many old folks together."
Everybody roared. Then Lacy, looking trim and dapper in a pinstriped suit, sat down to wade through a bunch of interviews and a pile of gifts, pausing in midceremony only when he spotted a newspaper layout guy in the crowd and called out, "Hey, Mitch. On my desk are three corrections for a printout."
Life goes on. The work continues, and parties are only brief interludes. For Lacy, the work started at the Washington Tribune, when he watched the dazzling stars of the old Negro League with skills far superior to those of many white major leaguers and asked himself, "Why is this allowed to happen?"
He started lobbying Clark Griffith, the Washington Senators' owner. Got nowhere. Went to work for the Chicago Defender and approached baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Got nowhere.
Then he came to Baltimore, found work with the Afro-American and got the boss, Dr. Carl Murphy, to let him work full-time on the baseball integration issue.
"He gave me the freedom," Lacy said.
To call Sam Lacy a sportswriter is to diminish him. To write about black athletes over the course of the last half-century was automatically to discourse on the great American dilemma, race relations. Lacy has done it, has argued for simple fairness, with gentle insistence, with insight, with a leavening sense of humor.
You could see some of it at his party. When a representative from the governor's office showed up with a proclamation, Lacy sloughed him off with a laugh: "He's late." When a man from the mayor's office arrived with a gift, Lacy said, "Golf balls, I hope."
"Yeah, golf," said John Murphy, 77, former chairman of the board of the Afro. "He'll leave here and play nine holes of golf. I've been playing him for years and haven't beat him yet. I have to wait for him to get old enough."
With Sam Lacy, there's simply no telling how long that might take.