A group of sports legends gathers to honor the greatest of them all

October 06, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE MASTER sat at the head table, barely visible to those who had to look around the pillars in the Designated Hitters' Lounge of the Warehouse at Camden Yards.

"Master" isn't the only word you could use to describe Sam Lacy, sports editor and columnist of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper for what seems like forever, but really has only been since 1944.

Let's see. There's "legend." Maybe "high priest of sports journalism" would suffice. How about "dean of Baltimore sportswriters"?

Whatever encomium is used, Lacy sat there at a Monday luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Press Club, which honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Some of those who came to pay homage to Lacy are Baltimore legends themselves.

Bob Wade, now director of athletics for Baltimore schools, was on hand. Wade achieved his legendary status as basketball and football coach (he was better at the latter) during his 11-year run at Dunbar High School. Wade's presence wasn't surprising. He might be attracted to legends, since he was coached by two himself: Bill "Sugar" Cain at Dunbar and Earl Banks at Morgan State College.

Vince Bagli, who should be the idol of every sportscaster in the area, came to pay his respects. Bagli spoke of Lacy as a "remarkable man" and a "good friend." He also told the luncheon attendees what it was like when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947.

"The single most important thing that happened in baseball was Jackie Robinson's entrance into major-league baseball," Bagli said. Robinson started out playing with the Montreal Royals, a minor-league team affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bagli remembered seeing Robinson play when Montreal came to town and faced the Orioles.

"It was an ugly thing," Bagli recalled. "I remember thinking `This is wrong' - the things people were shouting" at Robinson.

On the long list of reasons - probably at the top - that Lacy received Monday's award is his role in Robinson's breaking of the color line. Mark Ribowsky, author of A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, wrote that "in March of 1945, at the urging of the Afro's Sam Lacy, the white majors erected an advisory panel, the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration." Years later, Lacy also served on the committee that recommended the first Negro leagues players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Former Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks, something of a legend himself in these parts, as are all the old Birds of the late-1960s and early 1970s, described how Lacy talked him into staying in Baltimore in 1968 when Hendricks was ready to head back to Mexico.

"It was not the most pleasant of times," Hendricks said, with considerable understatement, of 1968. "[The Rev. Martin Luther] King was murdered. There were riots." Hendricks said Lacy had a 20-minute chat with him in the dugout about what his staying would mean to the city. Hendricks took the advice and doesn't regret it.

"I would never have met my wife," Hendricks said of what would have happened had he left Baltimore. "I would never have lived in a city of such wonderful people."

Mayor Martin O'Malley - not a legend yet, and he won't be until he shakes himself free of Baltimore - attended long enough to praise Lacy before heading off to another lunch meeting with the City Council.

"He wrote about the struggles of all people," O'Malley said. "African-Americans, women, some white people. He's always been fair." O'Malley told the story of how sportscaster Howard Cosell caught flak for defending heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali when the latter refused induction into the armed services. Lacy then defended Cosell and caught a little flak himself.

Lacy was always evenhanded in his criticism. He cared not whether his targets were black heroes or white ones. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, and Babe Ruth received harsh criticism from Lacy for their personal behavior. Not even Robinson, the man who made it to the majors thanks largely to Lacy, escaped Lacy's wrath. When Robinson reported to training camp overweight, Lacy suggested the ballplayer might want to trim some fat. When Robinson complained that the press wasn't treating him fairly, Lacy suggested he dummy up and play ball.

Not a shrinking violet, this Lacy, and more than just a sports editor or sportswriter.

"Sam Lacy is not only a great sportswriter," O'Malley said. "Sam Lacy is a teacher." Then, speaking to Lacy directly, the mayor said:

"Thank you for challenging the American conscience and demanding that we live up to our promise as a people."

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