Man who pushed for black athletes is honored at last

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 01, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At the Pimlico Hotel Restaurant, a lady says to Sam Lacy, "You don't remember me, but we met years ago."

"Oh, I remember you," says Lacy, gently taking her hand. "I may not remember your name, but I never forget a pretty face."

The lady is of Sam Lacy's generation. He is 87 years old. After 60 years as a newspaperman, he is getting a certain recognition overdue by only 40 or 50 years. The lady has a copy of Sports Illustrated in her hand, containing three pages and five photographs on Lacy. The lady wishes to congratulate him. The magazine wishes to canonize him.

For half a century, Lacy's been the Baltimore Afro-American's voice on sports. For at least that long, he's been a kind of conscience on race, a steady, insistent, reasonable voice putting into words America's uneasy dance with its black athletes.

The photos in Sports Illustrated tell little pieces of the story. Here's Lacy in 1951, at a table with a few friends: Willie Mays and Hank Thompson, Larry Doby and Al Smith and Ruben Gomez, black baseball players who were just beginning to change the face of the so-called national pastime.

But the ballplayers only found equality on the ball field.

Off the field, they were still turned away from hotels where their white teammates could stay. It was Lacy who helped turn that obscenity around, writing about it, talking to owners, always insisting on simple fairness.

Here's another photo: Lacy with Joe Louis on his left and Jackie Robinson on his right. It was Robinson who broke the color line, but it was Lacy, years earlier, telling the baseball commissioner and the club owners that blacks had to have the chance. When Robinson finally got it, Lacy was standing beside him for the next three years.

In Atlanta one spring training, he and Robinson awoke in a rooming house to see Ku Klux Klansmen burning a cross. In St. Louis, while the white players stayed at the fancy Chase Hotel, the blacks stayed at the Atlas, which had a big stove in the middle of its lobby and roaches living there as permanent tenants.

Lacy wrote stories about the ballplayers' crusades and the indignities they faced, but mostly left out the stories about his own troubles.

"Oh, there were a few," he was saying Tuesday at the Pimlico, sitting in a little group arranged by his old friend John Steadman, The Evening Sun sports columnist.

Lacy remembered being barred from entering a baseball press box in the 1940s but stiffly informed he could work on the press-box roof. Minutes later, to his astonishment, he was joined up there by a bunch of white reporters.

"I said, 'What are you guys doing up here?' " Lacy remembered. "They said they just wanted to get a sun tan. Sun tan? Those guys had just come from a month in Florida, covering spring training."

Four decades later, the memory still warms him. But he does not live in the past. His columns still run regularly in the Afro and are up to the moment. He arrives at the paper three days a week at about 4 o'clock in the morning, walks the three flights up to his desk, then exits about noon and plays golf almost every day.

"Oh, you should have seen those Sports Illustrated people with all their cameras," he laughs, between bites of linguine with crabmeat. "They wanted to take pictures of me going up the steps.

"I said, 'That's OK, but those steps are the only way to get up and down at my newspaper, so you're going to have to be there at 4 in the morning. Because, after that, it starts to get crowded, and we can't be getting in people's way when they have work to do."

Jake Oliver, the Afro's publisher, seated next to him, nods his head in agreement. Oliver calls Lacy "a fixture, you can rely on him like a clock."

He turns to his best-known employee now and asks, "How does it feel to be famous?"

"Keep working hard, young man," Lacy says, "and one day, you will be, too."

Everybody laughs. Across the restaurant now comes the sound of a human voice or a building collapsing, it's tough to tell.

"Anybody here seen Sam Lacy?" the voice says. It's Charlie Eckman, the broadcaster with the subtlety of brass bands. A moment later, here's sportscaster Stan "The Fan" Charles, and behind him come more radio people and business people, all well-wishers who knew Lacy's importance long before Sports Illustrated.

For those who take it seriously, sports writing transcends the meager business of hitting a ball or --ing across a field. It's about human beings at moments of athletic crisis. It's about youthful bodies stretching themselves to the limit before time runs out.

But it's also about translating the business on the playing field to the business of society at large.

That's why Sam Lacy's been important for 60 years. He's one who kept insisting: America made a promise to black people, too. They deserve the same opportunity as the white athletes.

"It's a lovely tribute," the elderly lady with the Sports Illustrated tells him now.

"Yes, it is," Sam Lacy says softly.

He doesn't mention it's about 40 years overdue. And, most likely, he isn't even thinking it.

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