It is spring training 1948, and Jackie Robinson is dogging it. The Brooklyn Dodgers' Rookie of the Year arrives four days late and 15 pounds overweight, and spends much of practice joking with reporters.
Sam Lacy is not among them. To the sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American Robinson appears blase, indifferent. And fat. Disgraceful, writes Lacy, the lone scribe - black or white - to rebuke the Dodgers star for his "lackadaisical attitude" and for "laying down" on the job.
Within a week, Robinson is his old self - lean, focused and bent on proving Lacy wrong.
Robinson would play his way into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first black enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. Today, he'll be joined by Lacy, 94, a columnist who championed baseball's integration and chastised the major leagues' first black player.
Few had the chutzpah to tackle those issues. Only Lacy did both.
"I wrote from my heart," he says. "What came out was exactly what I thought."
It still is. In a 1996 column, Lacy railed against the lack of black umpires in the big leagues, calling the arbiters "a field of creams." Last year, he scolded the Hall of Fame for giving Negro leagues greats a separate wing at Cooperstown:
"Fifty years after lowering the walls on the field of play, it should be time to remove the wall in The Hall - to let [all inductees] repose together. It is past time to end the system that says, 'Welcome to the plantation, but not to the Big House.'"
Today, the Big House welcomes Lacy, 49th recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing. His picture will hang beside those of Red Smith and Ring Lardner in the "Scribes and Mikemen" exhibit at the Hall of Fame, which wasn't even built when Lacy helped launch the crusade to break the game's color line seven decades ago.
'I'm nothing special'
Though never a baseball "beat" writer - his columns ran the gamut from boxing to basketball, and from tennis to track and field - Lacy's push for integration earned him entry in the Hall.
"I'm nothing special," Lacy says. "Any man could have done what I did with the story, with a little observation and curiosity."
Raised in Washington, Lacy grew up at 13th and U streets, five blocks from Griffith Stadium, where he sold pop and shagged flies at practice for the Washington Senators. From his mother, a Shinnecock Indian, Lacy received his chiseled looks; from his father, a law researcher, came the persistence to trumpet his message.
A three-sport athlete at Armstrong High School, Lacy attended Howard University, played semipro baseball and worked as a radio announcer until 1930, when he joined the Washington Tribune, the first of three black weeklies he'd write for.
He banged out stories assailing segregation and badgered baseball moguls to open their doors. In 1935, he approached Senators owner Clark Griffith and suggested he begin hiring black players. Griffith demurred, saying integration would kill the Negro leagues "and put about 400 colored guys out of work."
Lacy's comeback: "When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he put 400,000 black people out of jobs."
He continued to agitate for change at the Chicago Defender (1940) and the Afro-American, where Lacy became sports editor in 1944.
Two years later, the door cracked open and Jackie Robinson slipped through, Lacy at his heels. While the major dailies downplayed integration, black weeklies rode its coattails - though few covered baseball's breakthrough with greater aplomb than the Afro. From his first practice swings in 1946 ("a flashing drive past third base and an unimpressive fly to center field"), little that Robinson did, on or off the field, escaped Lacy's readers.
He chronicled Robinson's first day in the majors, naming those who sat beside him on the Dodgers bench - and how close they sat. He cataloged the insults and debris hurled Robinson's way. He counted brushback pitches. He timed applause. He reported every pulled muscle, broken nail and silver hair on Robinson's prematurely gray head.
The Dodgers star's private life turned public. Lacy leaked Robinson's address, visited his home and interviewed his wife, Rachel. He reported Robinson's eating, shopping and driving habits, including a ticket he received for speeding down Rhode Island Avenue in Hyattsville.
Lacy even analyzed his wardrobe:
"Jackie wears size 16 1/2 shirt, 36 shorts and size 12 shoes. He buys his wool ties at $2.50, his underwear for $1.50 (nothing fancy) and his gabardine topcoat at $50."
It was priceless stuff, and the public ate it up.
"Jackie and I never felt [the black press] was exploiting us," says his widow, Rachel Robinson, 75. "Sam and the others just wanted to report our experiences in great detail.
"I'm grateful for the documentary role he played in that whole period of baseball's social history."