- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

“Uncle Clarkie [Griffith] could always look out there in the right field stands and find it generously filled with loyal colored fans. Well, many of those same loyal black rooters … are puzzled by the Senators’ steadfast refusal to consider use of qualified colored ball players.”

—Sam Lacy,

Baltimore Afro-American, 1944

Can you — can any of us — imagine the major leagues without black players — without the skills, intelligence and zest for competition they add to the game?

Sam Lacy could imagine such a miscarriage of justice — had to imagine it — because he lived it for the first 45 years or so of his life. That’s the way things were in America then. There was white America and black America, and almost never did they meet. Even the Armed Forces were segregated during World War II, and most folks on both sides accepted the status quo.

Lacy never did. For a decade or more, writing for black newspapers because journalism was as segregated as everything else, he hammered away at major league baseball for maintaining the “gentleman’s agreement” among owners that had kept the game lily white since 1884.

Old Sam (or, then, young Sam) hammered and hammered and hammered. Finally, a crack appeared in baseball’s traditional facade when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers late in 1945. Robinson integrated the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals in 1946 and the majors with the Dodgers in 1947. In the latter season, Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby to play for the Cleveland Indians. A trickle of other black players followed, then a flood, and for the first time baseball truly became our national pastime.

Lacy and fellow journalist Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier did not, by themselves, cause such a quantum leap. Yet with their writing, they shone a bright light that exposed the intrinsic injustice of segregation at a time when baseball — like America — was sticking its head in the sand and trying to wish the issue away.

All this happened a long time ago, of course, and Sam Lacy continued to write intelligent and insightful columns for the Afro for more than five decades afterward — the last just two days before his death Friday at age 99. He never enjoyed the mainstream acclaim of the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich, another local columnist who worked into his 90s. Yet it can be argued that neither Povich nor any other newspaperman affected the course of events as much as Lacy.

“Without the influence of the black press, the integration of baseball would have taken another five years,” says Washington author and lawyer Brad M. Snyder, whose book “Beyond the Shadow of the Senators” examined black baseball in Washington and elsewhere in the 1930s and ‘40s. “Sam wouldn’t have said this about himself, but he was an agent for social change — unwittingly. He and Wendell Smith played dynamic roles.”

Jackie Robinson agreed. Lacy and Smith highly recommended the former UCLA football and track star to Rickey because Robinson’s education and intelligence matched his athletic ability. And Robinson often said, before his death in 1972, that the breakthrough would not have been possible without the support of the black press.

Even as a young man, Lacy had seen black players could compete on at least equal terms with whites. He grew up at 13th and T streets NW, just six blocks from Griffith Stadium. As a teenager he shagged flyballs during the Senators’ workouts and ran errands for the likes of Chick Gandil (later banned in the Black Sox scandal) and Clyde Milan. When Clark Griffith came to Washington as manager of the Senators in 1912, or shortly thereafter, he found Lacy on the premises. Certainly Griff, a kindly if old-fashioned soul, never dreamed how much the black kid would affect the game they both loved.

Lacy — a pretty fair pitcher himself for Armstrong High School and the semipro LeDroit Tigers before going to work for the old Washington Tribune in 1934 — gained his first national journalistic acclaim in 1937 when he wrote commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis about the issue of integrating baseball. Landis, a Tennessean, did not respond but asked Griffith to talk with Lacy. Griffith, by then the Senators’ owner, said the time was not far off when blacks would be in the major leagues, which was big news in the black community and press.

Was Griffith, who regularly made his ballpark available for black functions, telling the truth? It depends on how you define “far off.” It took 10 more years and a world war before Robinson crashed through the barrier. And not for 17 more years did the Senators, in a city with one of the nation’s highest percentage of black citizens, put their first black player on the field (Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula in 1954).

Ironically, Lacy let integration pass him by. Ignored by white newspapers early in his career, he later had many job offers from them. “But he always remained loyal to the black press,” Snyder says, “so much so that he gave them a 50-year career.”

For most those years, even in his 80s, Lacy made the drive from his Washington home to the Afro’s offices in Baltimore. He was a modest man who always claimed Wendell Smith was a better writer, so we may assume he never passed time on the road by reflecting how much he had helped change his game and his nation.

But we should.

I keep thinking about what New York Post sports columnist Jimmy Cannon once said of boxing champion Joe Louis, gently mocking and improving upon a cliche of the day: “He is a credit to his race — the human race.”

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