Heavy hitters for integrated baseball Uphill: Sportswriter TC Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith reported on Jackie Robinson's journey to the Major Leagues.

February 18, 1996|By CHRIS LAMB

In late February 1946, Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American was in Daytona Beach, Florida, to report on the spring training of the Montreal Royals of the International League, the Brooklyn Dodgers' top minor league team. For the first time in the 20th century, a black man would take the field in a game in so-called organized professional baseball.

The story of baseball's first integrated spring training was largely neglected by the country's mainstream press, which failed to give it the social or cultural context it deserved. But, for black sportswriters such as Lacy and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, the story transcended the white lines of a baseball diamond and touched on racial issues heretofore ignored by society.

Lacy and Smith actively campaigned in their columns throughout the 1930s and 1940s for the integration of baseball. They talked to baseball officials and appealed to sympathetic white sportswriters for their support.

"Several of the columnists went along on the basis of common sense," said Lacy, who's now in his 90s and continues to write for the Afro-American.

Lacy grew up near Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., where he watched the best black and white players - but not at the same time. Blacks had been prohibited from the white leagues since the 1880s and played thereafter in the relative obscurity of the Negro Leagues.

To Lacy, this represented a "double denial," he said. "Black players were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues and the white public was denied the opportunity to watch black players," he said.

He too, was denied the opportunity of writing for the majority press, where his work would have been exposed to a larger audience.

In the 1930s, while working for the Washington Tribune, Lacy discussed integrating baseball with Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, but was told to forget it because "the climate was not right."

In March 1945, he wrote major league owners suggesting a committee be created to study the possibility of integrating baseball. A committee was formed but never met. In the magazine, Negro Baseball, Lacy said Jackie Robinson was the best man for the experiment. Montreal announced the signing of Robinson in late October 1945.

By the spring of 1946, Lacy began what came to be known as "the Jackie Robinson beat." Segregation laws prohibited Robinson and Johnny Wright, a second black prospect with Montreal, from staying in the same hotels or eating in the same restaurants with their teammates. Like Lacy, they stayed in private residences. He said he wasn't surprised when Jacksonville and other cities banned Robinson from playing. "There was a strong probability that that would happen," he said.

Things were better in Daytona Beach. On March 8, Robinson played seven innings in a scrimmage game. It attracted no attention in the national press. But it was more than a practice to Lacy, who wrote that "it was the first time in history that a colored player had competed in a game representing a team in modern organized baseball."

In another column, Lacy wrote that Robinson wasn't just playing for himself, he was playing for something bigger. "It is easy to see why I felt a lump in my throat each time a ball was hit in his direction those first few days; why I experienced a sort of emptiness whenever he took a swing in batting practice."

It's doubtful a white sportswriter could have or would have written with this emotion. As Lacy explained: "It came from my heart. I did feel it. I was emotionally involved in everything."

According to Jim Reisler's 1994 book, "Black Writers/Black Baseball," Lacy became good friends with Robinson and would share much of the same racial abuse.

In Macon, Georgia, a cross was burned on the front lawn of their boarding house. In Sanford, Florida, Lacy and other writers were refused entrance at the front gate and had to slip through a loose board in the outfield wall. Later, he was barred from the press box in Cincinnati.

In "Black Writers/Black Baseball," Lacy acknowledged the importance of the Robinson story but said it was not the end of the game.

"Jackie Robinson was a great man, but just one story and not even the biggest story," he said. "That's because the story on blacks in the major leagues is a continuing story. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go, a very long way."

Baseball's relatively few black managers, black umpires and the woefully inadequate number of blacks in the front office positions prove him right.

Chris Lamb is an assistant professor of journalism at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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