Lacy was a grand champion for biggest of sports' causes


WASHINGTON - As the letters from senators and congressmen were read, and tributes came from athletes, peers and family, maybe the most touching words came from former Colts and Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore.

"Thank you, Sam," said Moore, as he looked down upon the casket from the podium at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Sam Lacy, 99, the revered sports columnist of The Afro-American for nearly six decades, was laid to rest yesterday. Several hundred people were in attendance to say farewell to the man who chronicled the life of some of the most popular African-American athletes ever, and literally helped change the complexion of American sports.

That's what distinguished Lacy from other great sports columnists, like Red Smith or Jim Murray. We're in this business for many reasons. We have a passion for writing or sports. Sometimes, we like to think we're a part of history.

But Lacy, who died of heart and kidney failure May 8, was on a mission. He lobbied for African-Americans to play major league baseball almost 10 years before it actually happened, and recommended Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey shortly before Robinson played the first game in 1947. Lacy was a civil rights activist before the movement began, and he helped change a lot of discriminatory practices in all sports.

Mission accomplished.

Lacy was the eyes of the black community and the conscience of white America.

"The one thing I will remember the most is his sense of mission," said William C. Rhoden, a Morgan State alumnus and New York Times sports columnist who got his start under Lacy. "That's what separates a lot of black columnists from their colleagues. It just wasn't about enjoying the game, traveling, eating the food and being there. It wasn't about doing something for him; it was about breaking barriers."

Lacy worked at The Afro-American from 1944 until his death. There were numerous opportunities to move to larger papers and earn a bigger salary. But his cause was bigger than baseball, sports and even Lacy himself.

"I asked him that: 'Why don't you jump?' " Rhoden said. "He said, and I'll always remember this, that the source of your power is your people, black people. He had a connection with his people that was very powerful. Sam had such a power base."

So yesterday, an emotional Moore gave testimony and thanks one more time to Lacy. He knew the impact of Lacy's writings and convictions. He remembers when the city of Westminster didn't exactly open its arms to African-Americans when the old Colts used to train at then-Western Maryland College. He knows about the struggles of getting the first black quarterback into the NFL.

Moore was still a youngster when Robinson was breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, but he knows about the accounts of his struggles. He also heard firsthand about the problems Lacy encountered trying to chronicle Robinson's early playing days - how Lacy was barred from press boxes; how a cross was burned outside his Georgia boarding house; how he was given the "back room" in rundown hotels that sometimes weren't suitable for any human.

Yet Lacy and Robinson persevered. And they kept grinding and punching.

Through it all, though, Lacy never showed bitterness. That was quite amazing. Always the gentleman, always classy.

"When I came to Baltimore in 1965 from Penn State University, there were a lot of things going on in the sports world that people knew about," Moore said. "There are plenty of athletes that need to stand in honor of this man. There are no words to describe the inner pain that one goes through when you are segregated, when you are chastised. This man here, over the periods of time, made it possible for a guy like me to be presented to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Every other African-American athlete needs to pay homage to this man here, but many don't even know who he is. Fighting for fairness, that's what Sam was about. Sam was in the trench, in the trenches with Jackie Robinson."

Lacy never came out. In 1995, he criticized the Baseball Hall of Fame for giving Negro league greats a separate wing at Cooperstown. In 1996, he championed the cause for getting more black umpires into the big leagues.

Lacy was never shy with his opinion. He once criticized track star Jesse Owens for not standing up about racial issues. He thought that Jim Brown may have been the greatest athlete ever and that Oscar Robertson was the best all-around basketball player.

He was there when Althea Gibson won at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and he was there when Lee Elder played at the Masters. Lacy had intimate details of all the big stars, whether it was heavyweight champion Joe Louis, tennis player Arthur Ashe or football star Willie Lanier.

But Lacy wasn't only about big stars. He covered black high school basketball teams such as Dunbar when newspapers like The Sun and The News American ignored black neighborhoods.

"The Afro-Lacy combination has for 60 years been an unbeatable combination," said Afro publisher John Oliver. "Sam's role as the sports editor has been a major element in The Afro's long history of fighting racial injustices."

Lacy touched a lot of lives in his career and eventually became a mentor for young black journalists. His involvement with Robinson eventually led to more minorities on the field and on the court, and eventually in the newsrooms, as well.

According to retired Baltimore TV sportscaster Vince Bagli, Lacy's involvement with Robinson getting into major league baseball was the biggest sporting event of the past century, bigger than Barry Bonds hitting 73 homers, bigger than Cal Ripken playing in 2,632 consecutive games.

Said Oliver: "Sam's incessant request for fairness and equality in various fields of sports has caused him to be viewed as the icon of modern sports black journalists."

Nah, Lacy was bigger than that. He was the model for any sports journalist. Period. As sports columnists, we can sway the opinion of a lot of fans in our hometowns.

Lacy helped changed the climate of major league baseball, and later all of sports.

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