Sam Lacy has been fighting the good fight for 64 years

April 15, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SAM LACY WILL turn 100 years old in the fall, and he's still got plenty to say. So naturally, he showed up yesterday morning at the Baltimore Afro-American, as he has for the past 64 years, to write his sports column and take part in the business of the day: writing not only about games but how they connect to the human conscience.

He is, in all fairness, slowing down a little. Until three years ago, when he was a mere 96, Lacy would drive in from Washington in the pre-dawn hours, write his column, and then head out to the links for nine holes of golf. Those days are gone.

"The last time I hit a drive, I think it went about 12 yards off the tee," he said yesterday at the Afro's offices at Charles and 25th streets. He laughed softly. "That's when it's time to stop playing. Plus, some of the plumbing's starting to shut down a little."

Now his son Tim, who writes the other sports column at the Afro, pushes his dad's wheelchair to help him get around. But Sam's writing is still sharp and, as always, it connects the insular world of sports to the larger world. This week, he's writing about the Masters golf tournament and the gatekeepers at the Augusta National Golf Club who do not wish to grant membership to women.

For Lacy, who helped open major-league baseball's door for Jackie Robinson more than half a century ago, the new dispute sparked a memory - not only of Robinson, but also of Lee Elder, the first African-American to compete at the Masters. It was 1975. Lacy was there to cover it but not quite the way he wanted.

"Well," he said yesterday, offering a wan smile, "they didn't want to give me press credentials at first. I had to show them my credentials from baseball and football and boxing, and from the Olympics. They finally said I could go onto the course, but they wouldn't give me access to the press tent. Essentially, they let me in the gate."

"So you're connecting Elder's experience with the current controversy?" he was asked.

"Yeah," Lacy says. "So now you don't have to read me this week."

Fat chance. For generations of Baltimoreans, Lacy's columns have been must-reads. He stays on top of today's games but brings to them the perspective of history. When he finished his writing yesterday, a 13-year-old middle-schooler arrived to interview him for a class project on the effect of Jackie Robinson's life on civil rights in America.

Lacy knows. It was Lacy who harangued baseball owners to integrate the game, and it was Lacy and Wendell Smith, of The Pittsburgh Courier, who told Brooklyn's Branch Rickey that Robinson was "not the best ballplayer but the best man" in the old Negro leagues to break baseball's color barrier.

And it was Lacy who was there with Robinson, riding the rickety old buses, sleeping at colored-only hotels across the South, and facing the same kind of discrimination as Robinson.

"What was it like for you?" the 13-year old asks Lacy.

"Oh, they treated me pretty rough, too," Lacy allows.

He sloughs it off now. But there was at least one baseball press box - in Louisville, Ky., when Robinson was still playing for Montreal in the International League -where Lacy was barred from entering and told he could cover the game from the far corner of the right field pavilion. Somebody out there had put up a sign: "Black Press." When Lacy asked one of the ushers there where the men's room was, the usher pointed and said, "Any one of those trees down there."

But he understood. It was Robinson's ordeal that would capture the American imagination. Elsewhere in America, the public schools and the theaters and restaurants were on their way to integration. But Robinson's journey played out in front of the whole country, which judged him on his playing skills and his character.

"One time," Lacy remembered, "I had to jump on Jackie. There was so much disillusionment that he felt. And the pressure was affecting his health. There was so much inner turmoil. He was thinking of walking away. And I told him, `You knew what to expect. You have to stay and fight.' "

He says this quite modestly, and without apparent thought of the connection to his own life. For 64 years, Sam Lacy has stayed and fought. He has been a great conscience for sports. The ballplayers change, but the rules of life prevail: Play fair. Give everybody an equal shot. And then, no matter how solid your argument as a sports writer, expect flak.

"Oh, sure," Lacy says. "When we were trying to get Robinson into major-league ball, I had players in the old Negro [leagues] say we were taking away their jobs. I said, `Yeah, when Lincoln freed the slaves, he was taking away those jobs, too.' "

On Oct. 23, Sam Lacy will turn 100. Any celebration plans?

"I'll wait till it gets here and figure it out then," he says.

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