How Sam Lacy helped integrate Major League Baseball

The movie "42" omits the story of the Baltimore sportswriter, but Robinson himself understood the influence of the black press

April 22, 2013|By Charlie Vascellaro

Like most films depicting historic accounts of real-life events, the bio-epic "42" carries the immediate disclaimer that it is based on a true story, leaving room for interpretive analysis and creative license. Consequently, dramatic interpretations are by their nature subject to scrutiny and debate.

While the film sticks close to the well-chronicled historic record regarding Jackie Robinson's unique place in time as the first African American to play in the major leagues, its sins are mostly of omission. Focusing tightly on the milestone season of 1947, the movie hurries through the arduous process by which Robinson and other African American players who followed him got to the big leagues. No recognition for Robinson's breakthrough given to anyone other than Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.

Of great influence in lobbying for the integration of major league baseball was the battle waged by members of the black press, among them Sam Lacy, who began his professional career as a sports writer for the Washington Tribune in 1926, moving on to become assistant national editor for the Chicago Defender and later the long-time sports editor and columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American.

Born on Oct. 23, 1903, in Mystic, Conn., Lacy was on the cutting edge of the development of black athletes in professional sports. His career as a professional journalist spanned over eight decades. He died in 2003 at the age of 99. In his 1998 memoir, Lacy recalled his and other writers' efforts to push for integration of professional sports.

"In the mid-1930s, black sportswriters kept tabs on what was going on in their own communities and in national sports involving blacks; at the same time, we tried to keep the heat on that period's racial segregation in sports," recalled Lacy, who made repeated unsuccessful attempts to meet with baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

Despite Lacy's ongoing efforts through the 1930s and early 1940s, it remained evident that there was no movement toward integration coming from baseball's policy makers. This became even more apparent during the early years of World War II when blacks fought side-by-side with their white countrymen overseas but couldn't break through, even though major league rosters were depleted by the military draft.

Some of the game's best and most celebrated players were beginning or continuing tours of military duty that would keep them off the ball fields for as many as four years. By 1944 the major league terrain was so dramatically altered that the previously unimaginable occurred: a World Series pairing of the perennially lowly St. Louis Browns, pennant winner for the first time in the team's 43-year existence, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Sam Lacy continued his attempts at meeting with Landis throughout and after the 1944 season, offering his availability at any time and place, but Landis died that November. While Landis' death certainly came as good news to integrationists at first, the appointment of Landis' replacement, Senator A.B. "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky, appeared to be a serious setback to the movement. Upon hearing the news, Lacy filed his column from out of town, writing: "It appears that his choice was the most logical one to suit the bigoted major league operators, of which there is a heavy majority on hand."

However, it was under Chandler's stewardship that the breakthrough would eventually come. Surprisingly enough, in a statement issued from the commissioner's office shortly after his being named to the post, the new commissioner said, "I don't believe in barring Negroes from baseball just because they are Negroes."

After writing a letter to each of the 16 major league team owners urging that a committee to examine the desegregation issue be formed, Lacy was invited to speak to the group in Detroit on April 24, 1945.

Lacy presented his proposal, which resulted in the formation of an integration committee consisting of Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, Yankees general manager Larry MacPhail, Lacy himself, and Philadelphia magistrate Joseph H. Rainey.

For perhaps the first time, major league baseball was responding to outside pressure, including incidents such as a picket by African-Americans on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, where protesters carried placards with war time references reading: "If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?"

Branch Rickey used the occasion to make the first public disclosure that he was planning to sign an African-American player.

"No matter the thinking of baseball owners at that 1945 meeting, the tide was turning against them. Rickey's decision was the beginning of what would become both a social revolution and a boon to the big business of professional sports," Lacy later recalled.

Lacy met on at least two separate occasions with Rickey at the Dodgers' offices in Brooklyn.

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