Lacy has spent life furthering minorities, but race he's helped most is human one

John Steadman

November 16, 1992|By John Steadman

Turning the other cheek or taking a hike has never been a Sam Lacy reaction to a problem. He won't crawl or patronize. A man of firmness and fairness, he doesn't ask for an edge, but merely the God-given entitlement of equal opportunity for himself and all minorities. The battle is unending.

Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, has been involved in the battle all his life. At age 89, he's only 12 years younger than the newspaper he has represented with dedication and distinction. The indignities have been numerous in both the sports and social aspects but Lacy charges ahead, still leading the good fight and refusing to back away.

It's difficult to get him to talk about himself, but friends stepped forward and offered stirring tributes to this remarkable man at the Oriole Advocates annual banquet. Lacy was the honored guest and appeared overwhelmed at the substance and commentary of the speakers.

A man suggested how painful it must have been for Sam, as a youngster, when his father came home from a street parade honoring the Washington Senators baseball team to describe what had happened to him. As a Senators coach passed by, he saw the black fan, Lacy's dad, cheering his heroes. Without provocation, the man spat in his face.

Lacy, decades later, was there with Jackie Robinson at Sanford, Fla., in 1946, when he broke baseball's color line at spring training with the Montreal Royals. Both were turned away at the park's normal entrance so they searched for and found a loose plank in the outfield fence -- which is how they entered together, Robinson the player, Lacy the reporter.

Since Sam has written about the non-stop world of sports since 1938, he rarely makes it a practice of talking about himself. Roland Hemond, the Orioles general manager, talked of the style of Lacy and the achievements and respect he has created.

Rex Barney, who pitched for the Dodgers when Robinson broke in, simply said, "I can tell you we players and coaches learned more from Jackie and Sam than they learned from us. Sam, in so many ways, was a counselor and confidant of Jackie's. They didn't have an easy time."

Sportscaster Vince Bagli mentioned the indignities Lacy had suffered and the opportunities denied him, yet there was no bitterness within the man. "You never learn about Sam in one meeting," he remarked. "You might get part of a story in conversation, but he's not the type to sit down and tell you what he has done. Over the years, you are able to put some of the things together and truly appreciate his experiences and contributions."

There were written messages received, all warm and endearing testimonials from such baseball personalities as announcer Chuck Thompson, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson. Lacy, a master of brevity in both spoken and written word, was obviously pleased and even tried to relax his listeners with a touch of humor.

This from a reporter who had been refused entrance to the press box in New Orleans when the Dodgers played an exhibition there but, with no place to work, stood on the roof. In Cincinnati, he had to cover the game from a seat in the stands. Long before Robinson arrived with the Dodgers, Lacy had tried to convince the major leagues to accept black athletes.

There were meetings with Clark Griffith, owner of the Senators; Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia A's; and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball. Nothing transpired, except lip service, until Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers, signed Robinson after World War II.

"I remember an occasion driving back from a national track meet in Houston and having to find a place to stay in Biloxi, Miss.," he recalled. "It wasn't easy for me, a black man and a Catholic from the north, to locate a room in the South at that time. I finally managed it. I had to write a story for the newspaper and the light bulb was about 15 watts. So I went out and bought a 100 watt so I could see while I typed. The next morning the land lady charged me an extra dollar because she claimed I used more electricity than was necessary."

Lacy laughed when he told of driving a Lincoln Continental in Florida and being pulled over by a police officer. "The car belonged to Dan Bankhead, the Dodgers pitcher, and the trooper wanted to see my license and the registration," he pointed out. "I hadn't violated any laws. I guess he was surprised to see a black man driving a big car, who wasn't wearing a uniform with white folks sitting in the back."

Asked the reasons for his longevity, Sam said, "A good marriage to a wonderful woman before she died, great friends, a job I've enjoyed, children and grandchildren I love and a smile from God."

The talented master of ceremonies, Walter "Bud" Freeman, returned to the microphone after Lacy. He offered a humane suggestion, a moving finale, when he said:

"Not all of our country's pioneers crossed mountains in covered wagons. Some like Sam were forced to spend a night in Biloxi, Miss., and suffer the pain of prejudice. Why don't we all go home tonight, offer a prayer and ask the Lord to help us to learn to live together?"

The audience erupted in applause. The last to stop clapping his hands was Sam Lacy.

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