It was a fleeting yet climactic occasion -- not exactly a grand entry with horns blaring and cheerleaders tumbling -- but nevertheless a historic moment in Baltimore sports that delivered a blow to segregation.
The first athlete to break the color line in any kind of a game at what was then Municipal Stadium, later to be rebuilt as Memorial Stadium, took to the field.
It happened Oct. 18, 1941, as about 45,000 spectators -- including Viscount Halifax and military notables such as Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Col. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan -- watched a football game between the Naval Academy and Cornell.
Little did anyone realize the player Cornell sent into the backfield that day was destined to become a trail-blazer on and off the field. He was an 18-year-old sophomore, Samuel Riley Pierce Jr., who at that moment was the first black both to play against the Naval Academy and to participate in Baltimore's then-segregated sports environment.
This was the same Sam Pierce who roughly 40 years later was selected by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ultimately, Mr. Pierce left HUD with a cloud hanging over his head. But his meteoric rise included an array of accomplishments: Phi Beta Kappa; three years in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division in the Mediterranean theater of operations; partner in the New York law firm of Battle, Fowler, Stokes & Kheel; associate counsel to a House of Representatives antitrust committee; a General Sessions judge in New York County; a member of the board of governors of the American Stock Exchange; and the first black to serve simultaneously as a director of two national companies.
The credits are impressive, yet this is only a partial list of the attainments of Sam Pierce, who reached for the stars and touched them. Fate tapped Mr. Pierce on the shoulder and gave him the distinction of becoming the first black to play in a major sports event in Baltimore. This was five years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line. While a member of the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm club, Mr. Robinson played in the same Baltimore Municipal Stadium.
Mr. Pierce's appearance drew zero reaction on the pages of the Baltimore Sun and its rival, the News-Post and Sunday American, except to include his name as a reserve in the agate compilation. However, for the Baltimore Afro-American, it was a major story, a breakthrough -- and it also was precisely that from a social aspect.
A page-one Afro-American headline, accompanied by a picture and two more of Mr. Pierce on the inside sports section, trumpeted the news in bold type: "Cornell Star In Navy Game" with a smaller headline that read, "Academy's Jim Crow Policy Gets Setback."
Navy had refused the previous spring to allow Lucien Alexis, a Harvard lacrosse player who was black, to participate in a varsity game at Annapolis.
In 1937, a similar incident took place when the University of Maryland football team threatened to cancel its scheduled contest at the stadium with Syracuse if it attempted to use the highly talented Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a Washington-born black with a Hindu name given to him by his stepfather.
Mr. Sidat-Singh had to remain in a Baltimore hotel, listening on the radio, while his team lost to Maryland, 13-0. The next year, in Syracuse, he gained a measure of retribution. Mr. Sidat-Singh was a veritable one-man offense, running, passing and scoring three touchdowns in a 53-0 rout of a team that only the season before was ready to walk out if he was in the lineup.
Another black player got similar treatment in 1940 when Western Maryland College, preparing to meet Boston University, asked its rival to not use Charley Thomas. Boston University reluctantly abided by what was known as a "gentlemen's agreement," and Mr. Thomas, in a depressing tableau, idled on the sidelines while his teammates played.
Cornell's trip to Baltimore in 1941 was the first time it had played below the Mason-Dixon line. The day before the game, at a light practice held at the stadium, Cornell coach Carl Snavely outlined for Art Carter, sports editor of the Afro-American, how he felt.
"Pierce is a member of Cornell's team and if we need him out there tomorrow, we'll use him," insisted Mr. Snavely. "He's been in all of our games to date and he'll get his chance if it comes."
Pierce couldn't stay
While in Baltimore, the Cornell squad stayed at the Gilman School . . . but not Mr. Pierce, who had to room at the Druid Hill YMCA and later at the home of friends.
Navy, with top performances from Sammy Boothe and "Barnacle" Bill Busick, won, 14-0. Their leading Cornell counterparts were ball carriers Ken Stofer and Lou Buffalino.
Mr. Pierce entered the action in the third period, made a tackle, and two plays later Mr. Stofer replaced him. Then, during the final quarter, he was back as a decoy running a pass pattern but Mr. Buffalino, under pressure from the Navy defense, didn't get the ball away.
In his Afro-American story, Mr. Carter, in part, wrote: "Whether or not Navy quietly sought relief from the embarrassing situation by asking Cornell not to play the colored halfback may never be known, but to Cornell's everlasting credit, let it be reported the Ithaca institution displayed real courage and sportsmanship.
"Unlike other Northern schools which have voluntarily bowed to the prejudice traditions of the South and left their sepia stars at home, or brought them along with the team only to shunt them off to some secluded spot, while the team played, Cornell put Pierce in the game. That he played only a few minutes is a factual matter, growing out of Pierce's own merit and his relative position on the Big Red eleven."
Mr. Carter also pointed out that with the clouds of World War II gathering (Pearl Harbor would be bombed less than two months later), the Navy had a continuing public relations problem since white and black recruits were not receiving equal treatment on entering service.
It was conjectured that the government, perhaps with President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox addressing the issue, could not stand to have the Naval Academy, its prestigious training school for officers, engage in any racist policy.
After the game
After his brief showing in Baltimore, the 185-pound Mr. Pierce, a native of Glen Cove, N.Y., proved outstanding in subsequent contests involving Colgate, Yale and Dartmouth.
Mr. Pierce, now 71, was to gain prominence in his legal and executive career, but the part of breaking the Baltimore "color line" as a Cornell player in 1941 has been lost with the passing of time. It's rarely, if ever, recalled by historians.
But there has to be a start, a beginning, and it was an athlete pioneering the way. That happened when Sam Pierce was summoned off the Cornell bench. He deserves the niche in history that belongs to all path-makers.
John Steadman is an Evening Sun sports columnist.