Lacy's autobiography truly reflects that wonderful man, his life and times

November 29, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE MIRACLE OF Sam Lacy isn't his age, which is 95, or his sports column in the Afro-American newspaper, which has been running since the Roosevelt years, or the delight Lacy takes in showing up for work in the pre-dawn darkness, writing his piece, and then heading out to the links for nine holes of golf.

It's his new autobiography, "Fighting for Fairness," and the remarkable tone that reflects Lacy exactly: He gives us the facts, and his own cool logic, and leaves aside what must have been his own fears, and anger, and awful loneliness. He sees bigots for what they are, but instead of returning their invective, he seems to shake his head and ask, "Can you imagine such foolishness?"

Everybody knows (or should) that Lacy was there when Jackie Robinson was breaking baseball's color line. He practically held Robinson's hand (and slapped it on occasion, too).

And everybody knows (or should) that Sam faced his own prejudice in all those days he was trying to force-feed a conscience not only to the moguls of organized sports, but to its patrons. Try covering a team when you're barred from the press box. Try living on the road when you're barred from its livable hotels.

Or, try this: "The year Montreal won the International League championship," Lacy writes, "I was with Jackie Robinson and his roommate, John Wright, when they went to play Louisville. This time, I was directed to the far corner of the right field pavilion. Someone knew I was coming and had put up a sign [there] that said 'Black Press.' When I asked one of the ushers where the men's room was, he pointed and said, 'Any one of those trees down there.' "

In the face of such outrageousness, here's Lacy's gift: He lets the story tell itself. His passion is always backed by simple humanity and by logic, and his quest for fairness is backed by facts.

More than a half-century ago, he discovered Syracuse University was billing a star African-American athlete as the only Hindu in college sports -- the school even tried to outfit him in East Indian attire -- so he could play against the University of Maryland, which wouldn't take the field against black players.

Lacy exposed the ruse. He wrote, "There is much speculation as to what [Maryland] will do when it learns that its lily-white team must rub shoulders with a Negro."

Syracuse had to hold the kid out of the game. When Lacy caught flak for exposing him, he responded, "This writer does not concur that waiting until after the boy had played would have been a better 'joke' on Maryland University.

"To me, such a contention seems only to be a weak-livered admission that we are willing to see our boys progress under any kind of masquerade; that we agree with the observation that 'anything but a Negro' is okay."

Don't be misled by the book's "fighting" title. It's not all about the struggle. Lacy's a self-effacing spirit with a puckish sense of humor. He's proud of one sister who became assistant superintendent of D.C. public schools, another sister who directed that system's art and drama programs and a brother who was a government worker "until he quit, deciding he could make more money hustling as a pool shark. His life came closest to matching mine."

Or, here's Sam describing one of his first attempts at television: "I prepared ten to 12 pages of copy and stacked them in order. Fearful of missing a page while shifting them, I disposed of each finished page by dropping it on the floor beneath my chair.

"To my utter amazement, on looking at the monitor, I saw that [a studio] camera that normally took head and bust shots had shifted full length and was showing discarded pages strewn about the floor around my feet.

"I was humiliated and thoroughly discouraged. Back in Washington later, I entered my apartment to find the bedroom door locked and a note from [my wife] Barbara saying, 'You can't come in here until you go back and clean up that mess you left in Baltimore.' "

Inevitably, though, the book's a history of race in sports. It's Lacy trying to get the lords of baseball to integrate their business, long before Jackie Robinson, and getting stiffed but refusing to stop prodding. Or it's Roy Campanella sitting alone in a bus while his white teammates eat at a Southern roadside inn. Or, even in 1950s Baltimore, it's Lacy chiding the committee for a Memorial Stadium Interfaith Day, "supporting brotherhood and fair treatment for all" -- but holding its planning session at the segregated Lord Baltimore Hotel.

Lacy's a treasure. He's iron-willed on the subject of simple fairness, but he's the gentlest of teachers. He and Moses J. Newson, his co-author, have done a lovely thing. They've given us a history of race and sport in America, wrapped around the endearing charms of Sam Lacy's life.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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