Free of obstructed views and fair-weathered opinions
Writing For Equality
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King day, I want to share with you the story of Sam Lacy (1903-2003), a sportswriter who stopped at nothing to defend his values. Other than Branch Rickey and Happy Chandler (MLB commissioner at the time of integration), the Washington D.C. native is arguably the most influential figure in Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier. While baseball was his true passion, Lacy’s imprints can be found all throughout the sports world.
Here is an essay that I wrote on his lasting legacy in the sports journalism world:
There’s no debating the fact that Jackie Robinson is the central figure of Major League Baseball’s integration. He exuded courage and determination throughout his career and life, which serves as inspiration for young black males. Branch Rickey’s contribution is also undeniable. He was more than willing to go against the status quo of the MLB and take a chance with breaking the unofficial color barrier. But with every great triumph, there are unsung heroes who play just as big a role – if not a bigger role – as the main players. In this case, no man was more unsung than Sam Lacy, a Baltimore-based sportswriter from Washington D.C. Through his persistent challenging of baseball’s color barrier with his articles for The Washington Tribune, The Chicago Defender and Baltimore’s own The Afro-American, Lacy would call out the owners who refused to acknowledge the talents of the best Negro League players and pick up the quest for equality in America’s national pastime off the ground – and somewhat violate a cardinal rule of journalism.
Samuel H. Lacy was born on October 23, 1903 in Mystic, Connecticut, but his family moved to then-racially divided Washington, D.C. when he was two years old. One could say that it was in his blood to test racial boundaries – his grandfather, Henry Erskine Lacy, was the first black detective on the Washington police force while his father, Samuel Erskine Lacy, worked as a law office researcher (considered a rare position for a black male). A love of baseball was developed at a young age, with the younger Sam Lacy playing semi-pro baseball in the D.C. area against top-notch Negro League talent. Ultimately, it was this experience that led to his interest in why the major leagues were segregated, as he told Ron Fimrite in a 1990 story for Sports Illustrated:
“I was in a position to make some comparisons, and it seemed to me that those black players were good enough to play in the big leagues,” Lacy says. “There was, of course, no talk then of that ever happening. When I was growing up, there was no real opportunity for blacks in any sport. It never crossed our minds as kids to aspire to the big leagues. Even the best players considered it a lost cause. But the idea stuck with me. I felt that not only were blacks being deprived of the opportunity to make some money but that whites were being deprived of the opportunity to see these fellows perform. I could see that both were being cheated. And so, with a certain amount of ego, I took it upon myself to be the wedge.”
From this moment as a semi-pro ballplayer until his passing in 2003, Lacy dedicated his career to exposing racism inside the world of sports, most notably becoming one of the most outspoken voices for fully integrating Major League Baseball. His first major article tackling this topic came on October 23, 1937 – his 34th birthday – while covering the Maryland-Syracuse football game in College Park, Maryland for the Tribune. The Terrapins refused to allow Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, Syracuse’s top player known as “the Manhattan Hindu”, to play after it was found that he was the son of black parents. Syracuse lost the game 13-0, ending their perfect season, and Lacy proceeded to call out the Maryland decision-makers by stating that “racial bigotry substituted for sportsmanship and resulted in the removal of the spark plug from the machine which was Syracuse University’s football team ….” From there he pleaded with Clark Griffith, owner of MLB’s Washington Senators, to integrate the team. Griffith explained that he would be destroying the Negro Leagues had he integrated, an explanation that did not impress Lacy. As he explained to Fimrite in the Sports Illustrated story: “The Negro Leagues were a symbol of segregation. If they had become successful, the world outside might never have known of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The black leagues were separate and unequal.”
Lacy kept the fight for equality going during his time at the Chicago Defender, when he attempted on countless occasions to meet with MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis about possible integration. Those attempts failed miserably with no response from Landis. Following a move to the Baltimore-based Afro-American, Lacy sent a letter to all 16 owners stating that an integration committee should be set up. While he was eventually appointed to that committee along with owners Branch Rickey (Brooklyn Dodgers) and Lee MacPhail (New York Yankees) and Philadelphia magistrate Joseph H. Rainey, no progress was made due to the full committee never meeting once. It wasn’t until politician Happy Chandler succeeded Landis as commissioner of baseball in 1945 that progress was made. It led to Rickey signing Jackie Robinson to a minor-league contract on October 23, 1945 – also Sam Lacy’s 42nd birthday.
It should come as no surprise that Lacy was appointed to cover the Jackie Robinson beat. It also shouldn’t be surprising that he endured much of the same discrimination that Robinson did. From finding a burning cross on the lawn of a boardinghouse he and other black players and writer were staying in Macon, Georgia, to repeatedly being denied entry into Yankee Stadium as late as 1952 despite being a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America since 1948, Lacy was mistreated in any and every way possible. However, it wasn’t all evil; he had the support of most of the newspaper fraternity. A perfect example of this was in New Orleans while Robinson was playing in the minor leagues. Lacy was forced to cover the game on the press-box roof, but upon arriving there he found a group of white writers from New York. They joked that they were trying to get a tan, which made Lacy feel welcome and relieved.
Because of his impeccable coverage on the Jackie Robinson beat, the D.C.-bred journalist was tempted with all offers to move to larger publications – including Sports Illustrated throughout the 1950s – but he refused every single offer and stayed at the Afro-American in Baltimore until his death in 2003. “No other paper in the country would have given me the kind of license. … I get paid enough to be satisfied. I don’t expect to die rich,” he told Bill Kirtz of The Quill. Lacy’s push for equality did not end with Jackie Robinson. There was the issue of segregated hotels in professional baseball. He first noticed this problem with the New York Giants while covering them in spring training:
“I think the Giants, before they moved to San Francisco, were the first to realize how foolish this was. It was before an exhibition game against the old Coast League Seals in San Francisco when I pointed out to Chub Feeney [then the team’s general manager] that he had guys like Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson holed up in some little hotel while the rest of the players, people who might never even wear a major league uniform, were staying at the famous Palace. Chub just looked at me and said, ‘Sam, you’re right.’ He got on the phone to [owner] Horace Stoneham, and that was the end of that.”
In addition to desegregating hotels, Lacy worked tirelessly to ensure fairness throughout sports. His Answers.com biography lists his other exploits, which include “[fighting] the major networks for their refusal to hire black broadcasters; … [fighting] for the inclusion of players from the old Negro Leagues into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Coopers-town; and [taking] the National Football League to task for hesitating to hire black head coaches.” In Lacy’s eyes, the quest to be equal in the sports world knew no boundaries, and he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve that equality. All of his hard work ended up paying off in 1998, when he was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
What makes Lacy’s exploits an ethical dilemma is the fact that in the process of speaking out against racism in sports, he unintentionally became the story – which violates a cardinal rule in journalism stating, “Cover the story, don’t be the story.” But given the events that occurred, it’s a good thing that this cardinal rule was broken; otherwise, there’s a good chance the sports would never be as culturally relevant as it is today. For that, we should be grateful for Sam Lacy’s courage and willingness to challenge the status quo in order to better the sports world.
It just goes to show that it doesn’t take much to have your voice heard in this society. Sam Lacy was able to take his passion for sports and use it to his advantage in advocating equality in all aspects of the sports world. I, for one, seriously question whether the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson would be enshrined in Cooperstown if not for Lacy. History may not have been made in Super Bowl XLI, where Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith became the first African-American coaches in the big game. We may never know of the amazing talents of the Gumbel brothers, Stuart Scott and Otis Livingston.
Thank you, Sam Lacy, for helping to make it acceptable to be a black man in the sports world. We salute you on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.