Sam Lacy, a Baltimore sportswriter whose crusade for integration rattled the cage of big league baseball and helped erase the game's color line more than a half-century ago, died Thursday of heart and kidney failure at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.
He was 99.
In a professional career that spanned eight decades, Mr. Lacy always kept his edge. His columns in the Afro-American agitated for change, championed the underdog and chronicled the rise of black athletes, especially early on, when minorities were largely ignored by the mainstream press.
For four years (1946-1949), Mr. Lacy shadowed Jackie Robinson, recording his ascent to the majors as baseball's first black player. The racism that Mr. Robinson experienced touched Mr. Lacy as well. He was barred from the press box in several ballparks, and a cross was burned on the lawn of his rooming house during a Southern road trip.
But Mr. Lacy endured, one of a handful of black writers who reported Mr. Robinson's every move to an African-American readership that hung on every word.
"Mr. Lacy proved, by his life's work, that we all have the responsibility of advancing the cause of justice in this world," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "He did it from his perch as writer, in such a powerful and persistent way, reporting segregation in various sports.
"Yet Mr. Lacy was such a self-effacing man, he almost seemed to shrug off his contributions. He was always gracious in acknowledging praise, but he did it with a smile and shrug of his shoulders, as if it was only what he had to do. That's the true mark of greatness, when one acts like it's simply one's duty to have done what he did."
Cutting a swath
Mr. Lacy's pen cut a swath through sports' golden era. Mr. Lacy saw baseball sluggers, from Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds; golfers, from Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods; football greats, from Red Grange to Ray Lewis.
Mr. Lacy addressed his longevity with characteristic humility. "God has been on my side, and I've found solace in my job," he told The Sun two years ago. "If people remember me at all, I hope it's because I tried to do right by everyone and make the world a better place from my small pond."
He was not a one-note complainer; he took on all sorts of subjects. In 1985, he wrote that when baseball strikes are settled, all the machinations "finally evolve into one indisputable fact: The fans get the shaft." In a story in May 2001, Mr. Lacy railed against the state of Maryland horse racing, deriding then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening for banning slot machines from the tracks. "I still get steamed at stuff I see," he told a Sun reporter then. "I keep the Tums right by my side."
To the end, Mr. Lacy spoke his mind. His final column appeared Thursday in the Afro, his podium for 59 years. The newspaper was only 12 years older than Mr. Lacy.
Born Oct. 23, 1903 in Mystic, Conn., Samuel Harold Lacy grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Armstrong High. There, he lettered in three sports and began his newspaper career. The Washington Tribune paid Mr. Lacy 5 cents a column inch to report on his own schoolboy games.
Graduating from Howard University, he played semipro baseball for the Washington Black Sox for several years. In 1934, Mr. Lacy joined the Tribune, the first of three black weeklies for which he would write. He badgered big league owners to integrate their clubs, carrying his campaign to both the Chicago Defender and the Afro-American, where Mr. Lacy became sports editor in 1944.
Two years later, Brooklyn signed Jackie Robinson.
Several years ago, Mr. Robinson's widow, Rachel, praised Mr. Lacy's role in her late husband's ascension.
Mr. Lacy's likeness hangs in the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he was installed in 1998. His name graces the U.S. Post Office branch on West 34th Street in Baltimore, renamed in his honor in 2001.
Other accolades include the coveted Red Smith Award, presented to Mr. Lacy in 1998 by the Associated Press, and the Frederick Douglass Award, bestowed that same year by the University System of Maryland. Mr. Lacy was to be honored May 21 during ceremonies for the 2003 Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame inductees. "[The Douglass Award] was the essence of satisfaction," Mr. Lacy said. "Douglass had the same philosophy I have - advancing humanity, and not just race."
Others remembered Mr. Lacy as a pioneer with a pen, a writer known for his vigilance.
"Sam was the eyes of the black community, though he had to slip through loose boards in the outfield fence to get into some [white] ballparks," said the late Joe Black, recalling Mr. Lacy's resourcefulness in the 1940s.
That resolve made Mr. Lacy a role model, said Mr. Black, who met Mr. Lacy while attending what was then Morgan State College. "Sam proved you could endure hardships and still succeed," said Mr. Black, who, as a Brooklyn pitcher in 1952, became the first African-American to win a World Series game.