Lacy's words matched Robinson with impact that still resonates


They were joined together as crusaders in the humane objective of trying to eradicate the color line in baseball -- Sam Lacy, the sportswriter whose fighting words jumped off the typewriter, and Jackie Robinson, a pioneer in the middle of the firestorm, feeling intense heat from all sides but never relenting.

The cause originated from deep within the embodiment of hearts and souls and a desire to beat back prejudice of the worst sort. They were born, raised and paid taxes in America, but were treated with disdain by those who wanted to keep Robinson off (( the field, this game called the national pastime. And there was Lacy, too often relegated to the back of the press box and, on occasion, told to take a seat in the stands or else go sit on the roof.

Robinson and Lacy, united in the cause, knew and felt the same prejudices, endured similar pain. Robinson's inherent ability to play baseball and Lacy's natural talent to write about it with knowledge and understanding didn't enter into it. It was merely a matter of racial deprivation and individual degradation because, for no other reason, they were born black.

Now it's a half-century later, and this is a commemorative season to examine again what transpired and the resulting history of Robinson arriving with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and fighting not only the tenor of the times but teammates and the opposition that didn't want to see any alteration of the social status quo.

It was our good fortune to know, to respect and to interview Robinson on numerous occasions before his death in 1972, and to claim Lacy as a personal friend, even a confidant, for the better part of four decades. Unlike Robinson, who suffered from diabetes and other resulting infirmities, Lacy has been blessed with extraordinary good health.

He's the oldest known sportswriter in the world, age 93, and still produces in classic style a newspaper column that has long played across the pages of the Baltimore Afro-American. Lacy remains vigilant, agile and enough of a two-fisted battler to stand up and be counted, something he has done for 64 years in his role as a surveyor of the sporting scene. He can read duplicity and recognize bigots with what amounts to an ingrained awareness. "I remember in Cincinnati," Lacy says with vivid recall, "they wouldn't let me in the press box because a sportswriter named Tom Swope had me barred. Instead, I had a whole box-seat area next to the dugout and 'guards' to see I stayed there."

But it also was in Cincinnati where shortstop Harold "Pee Wee" Reese put his arm around Robinson and talked to him on the field, to the astonishment of a hostile audience. Reese would frequently stand next to Robinson after death threats had been made, telling him, "If they are going to shoot you, then they have to hit me, too."

In New Orleans, with the Dodgers for an exhibition, Lacy was told he wouldn't be allowed in the press box. Instead, he had to go to the roof. "That's when Dick Young of the New York Daily News and a lot of the other writers came to join me," said Lacy. "Young said he wanted to get a tan, but I already had one. We laughed about that. Roscoe McGowan of the Times, Bill Roeder of the Sun, Ken Smith of the Daily Mirror and Joe King of the World Telegram and a lot of others came up there. It was a show of solidarity in my behalf."

Lacy was with Robinson in Macon, Ga., when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross outside the rooming house where they were staying, segregated from the rest of the Dodgers. And he remembers squeezing between loose boards in the outfield fence at Sanford, Fla., after they were denied entrance at the players' gate. In DeLand, another Florida city, the sheriff ran on the field and called off the game because he said it was against an ordinance for a black man to play with or against whites.

"There was never any fear of quitting the pursuit," says Lacy. "Branch Rickey, owner of the Dodgers, who signed Jackie, had studied the situation. He had great vision and knew Jackie had the qualities to make the grade as a player and individual.

"There was a vacancy at first base because Eddie Stanky was at second, but Robinson converted to the job.

"The year before, 1946 in Montreal, Jackie arrived as a shortstop but couldn't make plays out of the hole [he had hurt his arm in the Army], so he was moved to second. Al Campanis moved to short so Jackie would have a position. Campanis taught Jackie to pivot and the fine points. As a man, I would be reluctant to say Al was a bigot, despite the controversy that came from his unfortunate remarks years later about Negroes."

The Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League were perturbed with Lacy as he kept campaigning for baseball to grant all players equal opportunity. They felt if blacks were admitted to what was known as organized baseball, it would bring about the collapse of the Negro leagues. That's precisely what happened, but Lacy realized the cause he was fighting for, baseball equality, was much more important than the fostering of selfish financial interests.

Robinson and Lacy frequently had meals together during their ++ "rookie" year. "Again, in Cincinnati, we could stay at the Netherlands-Plaza Hotel but couldn't enter the dining room," Lacy said. "Three days in a row, Jackie went down for breakfast and was turned away. He knew it was going to happen. By his actions, he was sending a message."

In Lacy's opinion, only a handful of players in the Negro leagues were capable, in physical ability and demeanor, to attempt what Robinson was asked to do. Robinson had to put up with threatened boycotts by some rivals and even teammates.

"I believe Jackie and heavyweight champion Joe Louis made similar impact in bringing about pride among the Negro population and social awareness within the white sector," says Lacy, a contention that can hardly be disputed.

Lacy's life will soon be chronicled in an autobiography that is being reviewed for publication. He talks frequently with Rachel Robinson, the highly respected widow of Jackie, who was there beside her husband, never wavering, through all the troubled times and heads the foundation for just causes that carries his name.

Jackie Robinson and Sam Lacy. From different callings in life but with the same intent -- to use sport as a vehicle for bringing about the advancement of brotherhood and a fairness that we, as Americans, then virtually ignored but desperately needed. What they achieved in toto was more important than any baseball game.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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