Writing on the Wall Racism: "Afro-American" sportswriter Sam Lacy's words were the driving force behind Jackie Robinson's barrier-breaking career in baseball.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sam Lacy stretches the slim, tapered fingers of his left hand and ticks off the "best remembered" stories of his 60-year writing career.

There's track star Wilma Rudolph winning three Olympic gold medals in Rome. Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling. Tennis great Althea Gibson winning titles at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and Arthur Ashe doing the same 20 years later.

And, oh yes, enough Jackie Robinson stories to fill a book.

"People often ask me what was the biggest story I've covered," says Lacy, at 93 still a columnist with the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. "I can't answer that. There were so many stories like the Jackie Robinson stories."

Longtime friends say it's typical of Lacy to play down his role in the desegregation of major league baseball, an event whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated this month. But Lacy, through a relentless crusade in his Afro-American column and in meetings with baseball owners, played a key role in getting the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Robinson, who became the first African-American in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.

"Lacy was one of the courageous, foresighted people able to face the powerful owners and not be dismissed as an agitator," says Arnold Rampersad, a Princeton University English professor whose authorized biography of Robinson is to be released this summer.

Now the lone survivor of the men intimately involved in a revolutionary change that heralded the modern civil rights movement, Lacy is a source of fascination these days. News reporters and talk-show hosts want to interview him. He has been flooded with invitations for panel discussions on the breaking of baseball's color barrier.

This month, he'll be honored at a Baltimore awards banquet marking the anniversary, share a Smithsonian Institution dais with the grandson of former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and be a guest speaker at a Long Island University conference on Robinson.

The dean of Baltimore sportswriters smiles at the accolades. "All of this is starting to wear and tear on me. I mean, I'm 93 years old," he says. "They call me the dean of sportswriters, but being the dean doesn't mean anything except you've hung around longer than anybody else."

Made a difference

Sam Lacy has done far more than merely hang around sports. Quiet and dignified, his efforts toward desegregating baseball are a tribute to the American ideal that one person can make a difference against huge odds.

He shows no trace of bitterness when discussing intermittently traveling with Robinson for three years, beginning with spring training in 1946, when he endured the indignities of flea-bag hotels, a cross burning outside their Georgia boarding house and denial to stadium press boxes and even the stands.

Lacy must be prodded to talk about his sometimes harrowing experiences accompanying Robinson. He warns an interviewer: "I don't have anything new to say. Everything I'm going to tell you has been reported before."

"Sam was never one to sit around the newsroom regaling you with stories," says Jimmy Williams, former longtime Afro-American city editor. "He's a professional newspaperman who always feels that he is never the story. He was just the person who brought it to the public."

With his ramrod posture and relatively unlined face, Lacy looks remarkably fit on a recent morning, dressed in a charcoal pinstriped suit, coordinating striped necktie and shiny tassel loafers. His straight, steel gray hair is neatly cut close to his head.

He still writes his weekly column, though he began writing it longhand years ago. He drives his red Cougar from his Washington home three days a week, arriving at the Afro-American's North Charles Street offices before dawn, when he can get work done uninterrupted. By midday, he's usually on his way to some volunteer project, often speaking to young people.

Born in Washington, Lacy attended Armstrong High School and Howard University. He grew up five blocks from the old Griffith Stadium, where he saw the American League Nationals (later, the Senators) play.

"The kids in my neighborhood always used to go out to Griffith Stadium in the morning, because at that time all baseball games were played in the afternoon.

"We would go out about 10 o'clock and shag flies and chase balls while they were having batting practice. By doing that, I came to know all the ballplayers."

Later, as a semi-professional baseball player in Washington, he played against some teams of the old Negro Leagues.

When he became a sportswriter for the old Washington Tribune, something clicked: "It occurred to me that I had played against players in the Negro Leagues who were equally as talented as those who played in the major leagues.

"It got to the point where I said, 'There's something wrong with this.' That's when I got hooked on the idea of crusading to try to break down this color barrier," he recalls.

In 1936, Lacy met with Clark Griffith, owner of the Senators, to try to convince him to sign black players as a way to help the perennial last-place team.

Griffith balked, arguing that white, Southern-born major-leaguers wouldn't play with black players and "there would be clashes on the field," Lacy says.

"I told him that was something that would have to be policed, but that he knew the day was coming when the sport would be integrated. From that point on I became obsessed with this idea" of integrating the leagues, he says.

Lacy worked for the Chicago Defender from 1940 to 1943, where he commenced a letter-writing campaign to major league owners. Eventually, they agreed to meet with him. But the Defender's owner decided to send actor and political activist Paul Robeson to the meeting instead.

Lacy was disheartened; he knew the owners wouldn't seriously consider suggestions from Robeson, who was under attack as a communist. Soon after, though, Lacy became sports editor of the Afro-American, where he renewed his campaign.

The owners granted Lacy an audience, where he proposed the Negro Leagues become a fourth Triple-A league, providing players for the majors. The owners named a committee to study the matter, including Lacy, Rickey and Larry MacPhail of the New York Yankees. MacPhail refused to attend, so the committee never convened. But Lacy privately pleaded his case with Rickey twice. "After the second meeting, when MacPhail didn't show up, Rickey said he would pursue it on his own" but didn't say what he would do, Lacy recalls.

"Rickey always denied that those pressures from the black media and the Communist Party and others affected him, but he certainly was not unaware of these pressures. How much they influenced him is anyone's guess," says Jules Tygiel, author of the Robinson biography "Baseball's Great Experiment."

Biographer Rampersad says that Rickey spent $25,000 scouting the Negro Leagues and may have settled on Robinson independent of outside pressures.

Choosing Robinson

Regardless, Lacy and Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith used their newspaper columns to continue to campaign for desegregation. Their mutually agreed upon candidate to break the color barrier was Robinson, who was nationally known for his feats at UCLA, including lettering in four sports.

"He was not the best ballplayer, but he was the most suitable," Lacy says.

Robinson had played on an integrated team at UCLA, had served in the Army and was college educated. He had signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945.

"Most important of all was that he was engaged to be married," Lacy says. "At that time, white owners were always afraid that a black ballplayer wanted to interface with a white woman and, since he was already committed, that danger was eliminated."

In October 1945, though 15 of the major leagues' 16 clubs had voted against desegregation, Rickey and the Dodgers announced that Robinson had been signed to a minor-league contract with the team's Triple-A affiliate, the Montreal Royals. After a year in the minors, Robinson would cross the major-league color line, playing his first National League game on April 15, 1947, in Brooklyn. He would be named Rookie of the Year and go on to play with the Dodgers until 1956, leading them to six pennants and earning the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1949.

For three years, Lacy covered Robinson extensively, beginning with spring training 1946. His influential column was widely read then, as the Afro-American published 50,000 copies weekly that were circulated throughout much of the country.

After the first few days of spring training in Daytona Beach, Fla., in March 1946, Lacy wrote: "It is easy to see why I felt a lump in my throat each time a ball was hit in his direction those first few days; why I experienced a sort of emptiness whenever he took a swing in batting practice."

In a recent interview, Lacy patiently repeats the Jackie Robinson stories he has told so many times.

"We'd go to a city like Jacksonville and the doors to the stadium would be locked. In De Land, Florida, the sheriff came out on the field and broke up the whole idea" of integrated teams playing, he recalls. At a Macon, Ga., boarding house, Lacy awoke to find a cross had been burned on the front lawn.

But there are many other, more pleasant memories. Lacy would go on to cover virtually every major sporting event over the next generation, including six Olympic games. He would become a revered figure in Baltimore sporting circles, serving as a sports commentator on WBAL-TV from 1968 to 1976.

When the Afro-American moved to new offices, the city granted Lacy a special parking permit, allowing him to park at a meter near its front door free of charge -- an honor extended to few people.

"Coach Lacy," as close friends call him, talks affectionately of his late wife, Barbara, who died in 1969. He never remarried; there was no need. After having the perfect wife, anyone else would have suffered by comparison, he says.

"I would never think of [remarrying]. I wouldn't put anybody through that. I would be constantly comparing whoever it was to her."

So he continues on singly, enjoying his weekly golf game and his children and grandchildren. At his monthly poker game, "no one knows when he's bluffing," says Moses J. Newson, a former Afro-American editor who's helping Lacy write his autobiography.

For the past three years, as sort of a counterpoint to his father, Sam Lacy Jr. has written a sports column of his own in the Afro-American. "He would disagree with me on a lot of subjects, so I said, 'Why don't you write a column?' And he did," the elder Lacy says.

As for himself? Nearly three decades after passing retirement age, Lacy sees no end in sight as sports editor and columnist.

"I said in this week's column, you never know when that last column is coming," he muses. "You just don't know."

Honor Sam Lacy

What: Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Awards Banquet

Where: Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, 201 Pratt St., Friday, April 18, at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $60 per person, with proceeds to benefit area nonprofit sports organizations

Call: 410-783-5469

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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