Writer Lacy still helping to break through barriers

July 25, 1998|By John Steadman

Turning the other cheek has never been a convenient option for Sam Lacy, a champion of minorities whose written words have been known to deliver a message of sledge-hammer effectiveness. Usually in behalf of human justice. Too often he was denied opportunities for personal acceptance but was more concerned about the plight of others -- never himself.

Lacy is 94 but belies his age. He remembers when race horses broke from a walk-up start and ballplayers left their gloves on the field between innings and basketball had a center-jump after every field goal.

That doesn't mean he used to sit around interviewing Methuselah. But he has seen, with satisfaction, the black athlete prove himself in competition after being denied equal opportunity to participate for over a century. One of the deepest hurts of his childhood was realizing his father, filled with enthusiasm and waving a Washington Nationals pennant, came home from an Opening Day parade on a troubled note. A Washington player, Nick Altrock, saw the black fan, Lacy's dad, cheering the team and, to show his gratitude, spit in his face.

Sam personally found out how it felt to be turned away at the press box door or, once inside, confined to the last row, a condescending act that was the same as being told to go to the back of the bus. That's all behind him now.

A deluge of coveted honors has fittingly been conferred, including the Frederick Douglass Award, the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors and, tomorrow, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which goes with entry into the writing wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lacy, who grew up when sports were segregated and experienced the worst of times, sees through subterfuge, deceit and hyperbole. John "Jake" Oliver, publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American, agrees. "His opinions are solid," he says. "You can't fool him. In evaluating people, his record for accuracy is incredible."

Sincerity and honesty of purpose are the qualities he most admirers. A constant warrior for good. Every day, when he awakens, Lacy proclaims it "a smile from God." Another blessing. Lacy can get upset when bothered by racists ploys or those crowding him for information about himself that he has already discussed 1,001 times.

An individual of his vintage recognizes duplicity and hypocrisy because of the long-ago promises that went unfulfilled for so many blacks. He struggled to make a living in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Newspaper salaries weren't much more than what the kids made for selling them on street corners.

Even more poignantly, he grew up in the decades when water fountains, rest rooms, hotels, railroad waiting areas, restaurants and other public accommodations often had signs that read "white only." Even sailing down Chesapeake Bay could be regrettable. He and his late wife, Barbara, were discriminately delayed in being seated at a dinner table on one of the steam packet ships that carried passengers from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., for no other reason than they were of a different pigment.

Driving to the Washington Senators' training camp, he stopped in Orlando, and was lucky enough to find a room where the owner would accept him. While trying to write his column, Lacy found the light bulb was hardly bright enough to read the typewritten lines. So he went out and bought a higher wattage bulb, only to find the landlord tried to charge him more than the agreed upon rate the next morning because, of all things, "you used up more electricity by using the stronger light."

The joint travails with Jackie Robinson were as much a part of Sam Lacy's career as for the man wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, this determined pioneer in quest of breaking the baseball color line. Together, they had to find a loose board in the outfield fence in 1946 in Sanford, Fla., so they could enter the park after being turned away at the players' gate. There was a time, too, when a sheriff ran on the field in DeLand, Fla., ordering an exhibition game to stop because he insisted integrated contests couldn't be held within city limits.

Or the afternoon he sat on the roof of the press box in New Orleans and his writing contemporaries, all white, in a show of protest, joined him. Things didn't get any easier. In Cincinnati, the chapter chairman of the baseball writers association, one Tom Swope, wouldn't allow him to cover the game from the normal enclosure. Team management of the Reds was so determined to keep him out that it went to the trouble of providing special space in a box seat near the dugout. Additionally, a guard was placed nearby to make sure he "kept his place."

Lacy is ever vigilant against prejudices of all kinds. A Confederate flag being carried by a guest marching band at a Baltimore Colts game caused much anguish. He protested that it was insulting to see this symbol of racial divisiveness paraded at Memorial Stadium. It never happened again.

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