After 90 years, Lacy still making world of sports a better place

John Steadman

October 20, 1993|By John Steadman

These 90 years of Sam Lacy, perhaps the oldest practicing sportswriter in the world, have been filled with love of wife and family, unrelenting crusades to knock down the walls of prejudice and a newspaperman's professional satisfaction that comes with finding the appropriate word for the right situation.

He often felt the racial hurt of being turned away at hotels, restaurants and other places that should have offered equal accommodations, including press boxes. It was because of the color of his skin and these personal indignities that caused him and other black Americans to feel the deep pain of segregation and rejection.

His persistence to take on this vast social injustice never waned, because Sam Lacy refused to turn the other cheek.

Lacy's longevity is astonishing. So are his intelligence, perception of history and desire to deal with the problems at hand. Through 60 years of covering sports in Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, he has continually produced quality work -- columns that were hard-hitting when need be, distinctive phrasing, insightful opinions and -- bottom line -- an inherent desire to make things better for his fellow man.

At the same time, there was his willingness to tell any man, black or white, when he thought an attitude or actions were wrong.

Lacy is a walking time machine, ready to recall the past in vivid detail. His well-dressed appearance is conservative but that, to his everlasting credit, is not necessarily the way he thinks.

Lacy, at a 90th birthday party held at the offices of the Baltimore Afro-American, reviewed six decades of reporting sports.

"I believe Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson made the greatest impact of any black athletes in my lifetime," he said. "They are an important part of any history devoted to this country."

What about Baltimore? Was there any individual above all the rest in the sports arena who contributed in a similar way?

"Yes, by all means," he said. "It was Buddy Young. His personality and decency added much to the ongoing quest for racial equality."

After numerous rebuffs to bring Negro baseball to the attention of the then-commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Lacy was appointed to a three-man committee to study the issue of allowing blacks to bring their gloves and bats to the major leagues.

The first proposal in 1945 was to combine the Negro National and American leagues and place the teams at a level similar to the International, American Association and Pacific Coast leagues.

"Mr. Carl Murphy, publisher and owner of the Afro-American, hired me from the Chicago Defender," Lacy recalled, "and told me to get involved in the effort to have baseball accept black players.

"I went to two meetings with Branch Rickey to talk about it, but Larry MacPhail, the other man on the committee, never showed up. I believe Rickey just decided if it was going to happen he had to go his own way and sign Jackie."

Was Jackie the best of the black prospects?

"No," answered Sam. "He was the most suitable, not the most talented. He had played with white athletes at UCLA, was articulate and knew what had to be done. I'd like to say Al Campanis, who got involved in a controversy about blacks not having the capabilitites to manage, was extremely helpful to Jackie.

"When they were together at Montreal in 1946, Jackie didn't have the arm to play shortstop. That's when Campanis moved him from shortstop to second base and taught Jackie the fine points of the pivot and other things about the position. That certainly wasn't racist."

If Robinson didn't qualify as the finest black player Lacy ever saw, then who are his choices?

"Back then, I'd say infielders Dick Lundy of the Bacharach Giants and Ray Dandridge of the Newark Eagles and pitcher Joe "Cyclone" Williams of the Lincoln Giants and Homestead Grays," said Lacy.

At the Lacy celebration, Clint Coleman, representing Mayor Kurt Schmoke, remarked, "Sam has done more than make a living. He was a path-maker. He made it easy for others to come after him."

Publisher John "Jake" Oliver, in an assessment of Lacy, added, "His opinions are solid. You can't fool him. In evaluating people, his record for accuracy is incredible."

In conversation, Sam has often said, as he looks back through the telescope of life, "Success to me has been happiness on the job, a good wife [Barbara, who died in 1969] and a smile from God."

That's a philosophy that can't be found in a book but only from Sam Lacy, who has lived it.

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