Writing on the Wall Racism: "Afro-American" sportswriter Sam Lacy's words were the driving force behind Jackie Robinson's barrier-breaking career in baseball.

April 01, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Sam Lacy stretches the slim, tapered fingers of his left hand and ticks off the "best remembered" stories of his 60-year writing career.

There's track star Wilma Rudolph winning three Olympic gold medals in Rome. Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling. Tennis great Althea Gibson winning titles at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and Arthur Ashe doing the same 20 years later.

And, oh yes, enough Jackie Robinson stories to fill a book.

"People often ask me what was the biggest story I've covered," says Lacy, at 93 still a columnist with the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. "I can't answer that. There were so many stories like the Jackie Robinson stories."

Longtime friends say it's typical of Lacy to play down his role in the desegregation of major league baseball, an event whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated this month. But Lacy, through a relentless crusade in his Afro-American column and in meetings with baseball owners, played a key role in getting the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Robinson, who became the first African-American in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.

"Lacy was one of the courageous, foresighted people able to face the powerful owners and not be dismissed as an agitator," says Arnold Rampersad, a Princeton University English professor whose authorized biography of Robinson is to be released this summer.

Now the lone survivor of the men intimately involved in a revolutionary change that heralded the modern civil rights movement, Lacy is a source of fascination these days. News reporters and talk-show hosts want to interview him. He has been flooded with invitations for panel discussions on the breaking of baseball's color barrier.

This month, he'll be honored at a Baltimore awards banquet marking the anniversary, share a Smithsonian Institution dais with the grandson of former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and be a guest speaker at a Long Island University conference on Robinson.

The dean of Baltimore sportswriters smiles at the accolades. "All of this is starting to wear and tear on me. I mean, I'm 93 years old," he says. "They call me the dean of sportswriters, but being the dean doesn't mean anything except you've hung around longer than anybody else."

Made a difference

Sam Lacy has done far more than merely hang around sports. Quiet and dignified, his efforts toward desegregating baseball are a tribute to the American ideal that one person can make a difference against huge odds.

He shows no trace of bitterness when discussing intermittently traveling with Robinson for three years, beginning with spring training in 1946, when he endured the indignities of flea-bag hotels, a cross burning outside their Georgia boarding house and denial to stadium press boxes and even the stands.

Lacy must be prodded to talk about his sometimes harrowing experiences accompanying Robinson. He warns an interviewer: "I don't have anything new to say. Everything I'm going to tell you has been reported before."

"Sam was never one to sit around the newsroom regaling you with stories," says Jimmy Williams, former longtime Afro-American city editor. "He's a professional newspaperman who always feels that he is never the story. He was just the person who brought it to the public."

With his ramrod posture and relatively unlined face, Lacy looks remarkably fit on a recent morning, dressed in a charcoal pinstriped suit, coordinating striped necktie and shiny tassel loafers. His straight, steel gray hair is neatly cut close to his head.

He still writes his weekly column, though he began writing it longhand years ago. He drives his red Cougar from his Washington home three days a week, arriving at the Afro-American's North Charles Street offices before dawn, when he can get work done uninterrupted. By midday, he's usually on his way to some volunteer project, often speaking to young people.

Born in Washington, Lacy attended Armstrong High School and Howard University. He grew up five blocks from the old Griffith Stadium, where he saw the American League Nationals (later, the Senators) play.

"The kids in my neighborhood always used to go out to Griffith Stadium in the morning, because at that time all baseball games were played in the afternoon.

"We would go out about 10 o'clock and shag flies and chase balls while they were having batting practice. By doing that, I came to know all the ballplayers."

Later, as a semi-professional baseball player in Washington, he played against some teams of the old Negro Leagues.

When he became a sportswriter for the old Washington Tribune, something clicked: "It occurred to me that I had played against players in the Negro Leagues who were equally as talented as those who played in the major leagues.

"It got to the point where I said, 'There's something wrong with this.' That's when I got hooked on the idea of crusading to try to break down this color barrier," he recalls.

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