It is spring training 1948, and Jackie Robinson is dogging it. The Brooklyn Dodgers' Rookie of the Year arrives four days late and 15 pounds overweight, and spends much of practice joking with reporters.
Sam Lacy is not among them. To the sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American Robinson appears blase, indifferent. And fat. Disgraceful, writes Lacy, the lone scribe - black or white - to rebuke the Dodgers star for his "lackadaisical attitude" and for "laying down" on the job.
Within a week, Robinson is his old self - lean, focused and bent on proving Lacy wrong.
Robinson would play his way into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first black enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. Today, he'll be joined by Lacy, 94, a columnist who championed baseball's integration and chastised the major leagues' first black player.
Few had the chutzpah to tackle those issues. Only Lacy did both.
"I wrote from my heart," he says. "What came out was exactly what I thought."
It still is. In a 1996 column, Lacy railed against the lack of black umpires in the big leagues, calling the arbiters "a field of creams." Last year, he scolded the Hall of Fame for giving Negro leagues greats a separate wing at Cooperstown:
"Fifty years after lowering the walls on the field of play, it should be time to remove the wall in The Hall - to let [all inductees] repose together. It is past time to end the system that says, 'Welcome to the plantation, but not to the Big House.'"
Today, the Big House welcomes Lacy, 49th recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing. His picture will hang beside those of Red Smith and Ring Lardner in the "Scribes and Mikemen" exhibit at the Hall of Fame, which wasn't even built when Lacy helped launch the crusade to break the game's color line seven decades ago.
'I'm nothing special'
Though never a baseball "beat" writer - his columns ran the gamut from boxing to basketball, and from tennis to track and field - Lacy's push for integration earned him entry in the Hall.
"I'm nothing special," Lacy says. "Any man could have done what I did with the story, with a little observation and curiosity."
Raised in Washington, Lacy grew up at 13th and U streets, five blocks from Griffith Stadium, where he sold pop and shagged flies at practice for the Washington Senators. From his mother, a Shinnecock Indian, Lacy received his chiseled looks; from his father, a law researcher, came the persistence to trumpet his message.
A three-sport athlete at Armstrong High School, Lacy attended Howard University, played semipro baseball and worked as a radio announcer until 1930, when he joined the Washington Tribune, the first of three black weeklies he'd write for.
He banged out stories assailing segregation and badgered baseball moguls to open their doors. In 1935, he approached Senators owner Clark Griffith and suggested he begin hiring black players. Griffith demurred, saying integration would kill the Negro leagues "and put about 400 colored guys out of work."
Lacy's comeback: "When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he put 400,000 black people out of jobs."
He continued to agitate for change at the Chicago Defender (1940) and the Afro-American, where Lacy became sports editor in 1944.
Two years later, the door cracked open and Jackie Robinson slipped through, Lacy at his heels. While the major dailies downplayed integration, black weeklies rode its coattails - though few covered baseball's breakthrough with greater aplomb than the Afro. From his first practice swings in 1946 ("a flashing drive past third base and an unimpressive fly to center field"), little that Robinson did, on or off the field, escaped Lacy's readers.
He chronicled Robinson's first day in the majors, naming those who sat beside him on the Dodgers bench - and how close they sat. He cataloged the insults and debris hurled Robinson's way. He counted brushback pitches. He timed applause. He reported every pulled muscle, broken nail and silver hair on Robinson's prematurely gray head.
The Dodgers star's private life turned public. Lacy leaked Robinson's address, visited his home and interviewed his wife, Rachel. He reported Robinson's eating, shopping and driving habits, including a ticket he received for speeding down Rhode Island Avenue in Hyattsville.
Lacy even analyzed his wardrobe:
"Jackie wears size 16 1/2 shirt, 36 shorts and size 12 shoes. He buys his wool ties at $2.50, his underwear for $1.50 (nothing fancy) and his gabardine topcoat at $50."
It was priceless stuff, and the public ate it up.
"Jackie and I never felt [the black press] was exploiting us," says his widow, Rachel Robinson, 75. "Sam and the others just wanted to report our experiences in great detail.
"I'm grateful for the documentary role he played in that whole period of baseball's social history."
No topic was taboo. During a 1949 exhibition swing through Atlanta, where Robinson and the Dodgers drew record crowds, Lacy telephoned Dr. Samuel Green, grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who'd tried to sabotage the games.
Why would a black reporter of the time seek out the head of the KKK?
"I wanted to know if he was going to start any crap at the ballpark," Lacy says.
The Afro published the interview:
"'Hello, Doctah Green tawkin.'
"'Doctor, this is Sam Lacy of the Afro-American newspapers. I'd like a few minutes of your time today at your convenience, if you'd be good enough to see me.'
"'Africo-American's that Negro paper, ain't it? Well, I ain't got anything to say to you.'
"The reporter heard a bang, listened a moment to the buzzing sound - and hung up too."
A week later, during a stop in San Antonio, Lacy filed this gem:
"Robbie, conscious of the tremendous partisanship in the stands, told teammates: 'I'm going to try my best in batting practice to hit one out of the park and watch the colored stands go wild. Then I'm going to swing like hell on the next pitch and miss. I want to see what the whites' reaction will be.'
"He did just that. When his first hit bounced off the fence, the colored patrons broke into a wild demonstration. When he whiffed on the next pitch, the white section became a bedlam of hoots and catcalls. [Then Brooklyn's] Pee Wee Reese spoke up, 'We can all go home now, EVERYBODY'S happy!'"
One-man stands were Lacy's forte, other black stars of the era say.
"Sam wasn't looking for controversy - he was looking for truth," says Joe Black, 74, a former Dodger who has known Lacy since his playing days at Morgan State College.
"Sam had independent views and a lot of guts," says Bill White, former National League president, who broke into the majors in 1956. "When players got out of line, he took us to task. It was good, having someone around to keep our heads from getting too big."
Lacy also took rookies under his wing in spring training, said White. "Sam told us how to deal with open prejudices in the South, so we wouldn't get embarrassed or hurt," he said. "He was a surrogate uncle giving pre-emptive advice."
Lacy's columns revealed much of that bigotry.
When Brooklyn's team bus stopped at a roadside diner in central Florida, Lacy froze the scene:
"Several [white] players who are on the squad for no more than tryouts went in, sat at the tables and ordered. [Roy] Campanella, generally recognized as the best catcher in baseball, was forced to sit alone in the bus and eat what was brought out to him on a tray."
Time and again, Lacy wrote against the grain. In 1947, he supported Paul Lehner, a white outfielder for the St. Louis Browns who was rumored to be racist. Not so, wrote Lacy, describing a scene in the dugout between Lehner and Willard Brown, a black teammate:
"Brown used a towel to wipe his face and neck. Lehner reached over, picked up the same towel, wiped his face and neck. He handed it back to Brown and the latter wiped again. A little later, Lehner repeated the act. Folks, this was something I saw, not something I heard about."
In 1954, Lacy chided the city of Milwaukee for planning a "Hank Aaron Day" for the Braves' outfielder, two months into his rookie season. "Why? Why is it we feel every colored player in the major leagues is entitled to a day?" Lacy wrote. "Why can't we wait until, through consistent performance or longevity, the player in question merits special attention?"
Diplomacy wasn't Lacy's style, says Frances L. Murphy II, publisher of the Washington Afro-American whose father ran the Baltimore newspaper. "Sam is a man who didn't bite his tongue," she says. "He pretty much put it all out there."
Lacy tackled icons, too. Let others mourn Babe Ruth's passing, he wrote in 1948, calling Ruth "an irresponsible rowdy who could neither eat with dignity nor drink with judgment who thrived on cuss-words and brawls whose 15-year-old mentality led him to buy one bright-colored automobile after another to smash up.
"The rest of the world can hail the departed hero as a model for its youth but I do not wish my [son] Tim to use him as an example. And there is absolutely nothing racial about this observation. The same applies to [black boxer] Jack Johnson, who is also dead."
Tim followed his father's example. At 60, he is also a sports columnist for the Afro.
Tim's father, the maverick, writes on. In 1987, Sam Lacy sympathized with Al Campanis, the Dodgers executive who was fired for saying blacks lacked "the necessities" to be team managers. Why the kid gloves? Years earlier, Lacy knew, Campanis had helped Jackie Robinson survive a torturous year in the minors.
If baseball defined Lacy, it hasn't confined him. He covered six Olympics, dozens of boxing championships and hundreds of football games, including the first interracial contest in Maryland between Maryland State and Trenton (N.J.) College in 1949:
"Princess Anne, Md. - Down here on the Eastern Shore, where 32 lynchings have occurred since 1882, democracy lifted its face toward the Sun on Saturday"
Lacy has portrayed black jockeys, cowboys and stock car drivers. In 1957, he paid homage to tennis great Althea Gibson:
"Althea on Saturday parlayed her wooden paddle beginnings in a Harlem side street into the most coveted crown yet won by a tan athlete. On that day, a former Harlem urchin had a Wimbledon coronation."
"You look down and see an object less than two inches in diameter glaring at you in the brazen whiteness which once characterized this course and this tournament - and doing its best to dismantle your confidence.
"Conquer [such] aggravating mind-bogglers and you play this stupid game with a fair degree of success. But you're still not Tiger Woods. Nor was anyone else on the golf course at Augusta National last week."
Eight decades of writing have not dulled his passion. "I'll die finishing a story," says Lacy, who still writes his weekly column, rising at 3 a.m. at his apartment in northeast Washington to drive to the Afro office on Charles Street.
"A journalist's work is never complete," he says. "There's a restlessness that remains in your heart and mind forever."
Sun staff writer Christian Ewell and research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Samples of Lacy's best
Lacy's first bylined column in the Afro-American, Jan. 22, 1944:
"Jack Sharkey, 'white hope' of a decade ago, contends that Jack Dempsey hit harder than Joe Louis. Says he oughta know, since he was knocked out by both. What puzzles me is, how a guy knocked cuckoo twice can figure out which blow was the cuckooier."
Feb. 26, 1944 (on Clark Griffith):
"The white-haired owner of the Washington Senators I will go into spring training with the unprecedented total of 39 would-be big leaguers - the percentage of colored among them exactly zero I With him, the hue of a man's skin shadows his fielding prowess; the texture of his hair knocks down his batting average. Don't ask me how."
April 8, 1944:
"This year's [baseball] rosters includes men of the following nationalities: Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Mexican, Cuban and Norwegian. The Philadelphia Athletics have a full-blooded Indian. Can there be any doubt that it's simply a case of 'anything but' a - er - gentleman of African extraction?"
Aug. 10, 1948:
"[Cleveland] Manager Lou Boudreau has announced that Satchel Paige's next starting assignment will be Friday the 13th, against the White Sox I Hmmmm I Wonder could this be one of those 'c'm-heah-cullud-boy-lemme-touch-your-head' things I "
Aug. 24, 1948:
"I got to thinking what a sad commentary it would be on major league baseball if Satchel Paige were to come up as the 1948 Rookie of the Year I at 44 years of age."
July 9, 1957 (on Althea Gibson's victory at Wimbledon):
"It is the greatest triumph a colored athlete has accomplished in my time I Being a man, I wince on saying that, yet I feel I'd be less than a man if I failed to say it."
Jan. 30, 1962 (on Jackie Robinson's induction into Baseball Hal of Fame):
"Sixteen years ago, [Brooklyn] outfielder Dixie Walker I gave reassurance to the Southern brotherhood with the prediction that Jackie would never make the grade. Walker I hasn't 'made it' to the Hall of Fame, and in the balloting that last month shot Jackie into the shrine, Dixie wound up with the total of one vote."
July 3, 1962:
"There is no denying the simple fact that the Orioles are the only all-white team in major league baseball at the moment I But [I] am not nearly so irked by this as if the Baltimore front office should move to pacify its critics by placing on the roster a player of dubious ability but definite complexion."
Aug. 3, 1971 (on Satchel Paige's enshrinement in Baseball Hall o Fame):
"I'll look around and sympathize with the thousands of whites in attendance I because only we [black reporters] know how much they missed when they were deprived of the opportunity to see the magic of others who performed in baseball's 'dark days.'"
Aug. 17, 1985:
"When baseball strikes are settled, all the rhetoric that went on, all the solicitations for public sympathy, all the lengthy negotiations and concessions finally evolve into one indisputable fact: The fans get the shaft."
May 27, 1989:
"Did University of Maryland officials hurriedly place ex-Terp Len Elmore on the search committee to find a replacement for [basketball coach] Bob Wade so that Elmore wouldn't be available to seek the job himself? Lenny, like Bob, is black I and that wouldn't do, would it?"
April 5, 1997 (on throwing out ceremonial first pitch at Camden Yards):
"Warning is hereby given the designated catcher that I may not throw a straight ball because of an unruly right eye; it won't be a slider because my rotator cuff was a shambles years ago; it won't be a knuckle-curve because my nails are too brittle; nor will it be a split-finger because of my arthritis; and the last time I threw a fastball, my 6-year-old son caught it with his bare hands."
Pub Date: 7/26/98