1998: Sam Lacy

By Gidal Kaiser
Monticello Herald Journal
Dec. 26, 2019

Pioneer has two definitions.

As a noun: A person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.

As a verb: Develop or be the first to use or apply (a new method, area of knowledge, or activity).

Samuel Harold “Sam” Lacy can fit into both those boxes — just as he tore down myriad others in embodying the word itself.

Take in part his list of “firsts:” First black member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America; first African-American journalist enshrined in the Maryland Media Hall of Fame; among the first group of writers honored with the A.J. Leibling Award by the Boxing Writers Association of America.

The National Association of Black Journalists, via its Sports Task Force, instituted the Sam Lacy Pioner Award to be presented to multiple individuals at each convention.  Recipients are selected based on their “contributions to their respected careers, but more importantly, their direct impact on the communities they served,” according to a Sports Task Force blog post.

“You can’t write the history of sports and race in America without devoting a chapter to Sam Lacy, the extraordinary columnist of the Baltimore Afro-American the last 64 years, of the Chicago Defender before that, and the Washington Tribune before that,” wrote Michael Wilbon for the Washington Post in May 2003. “He and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier were on the front lines like no other writers in the mission for racial and cultural inclusion at a time when that conflict defined America.”

Like hundreds of thousands of youths in his time, he was drawn in his early years toward baseball. Lacy grew up in the early 1900s into the 1920s in Washington D.C., the son of an African-American father and Native American Shinnecock tribe mother. He also grew up in the shadow of Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Nationals/Senators, and often ran errands for players and chased down balls during batting practice, according to several tomes and screeds written about him through his life and after his passing in May 2003 — five months before his 100th birthday.

Lacy grew to love baseball, working for the Senators and selling popcorn and peanuts in the stadium’s segregated right-field section as a teenager. He also played baseball as part of a three-sport track at Armstrong Technical High School in D.C., and played semi-professional for a few seasons after graduating from Howard University.

The sport he loved also showed him a more sinister side at an early age. The Washington Senators held an annual parade on Opening Day, where fans would line up to welcome the team for the new season. During one such parade, Lacy told Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite in the 90s, his father, then nearing 80, cheered along and waved an “I Saw Walter Johnson Pitch” pennant.

Wrote Fimrite: “I told you my father was a dyed-in-the-wool fan,” he says. “Well, that he was, right up to the age of 79. Back then, there was always a parade of players to the ballpark on Opening Day. Fans like my father would line up for hours to watch their heroes pass by. And so there he was, age 79, out there cheering with the rest of them, calling all the players by name, just happy to be there. And then it happened. One of the white players — I won’t say which one — just gave him this nasty look and, as he passed by, spat right in his face. Right in that nice old man’s face. That hurt my father terribly. And you know, as big a fan as he had been, he never went to another game as long as he lived, which was seven more years.”

That moment may not have been the spark that pushed Lacy down his path completely, but most likely played a large part in what became a decades-long crusade, along with many others, to fight for acceptance in athletics, which began with racially integrating baseball.

While in college, Lacy covered sports part-time for the Washington Tribune, a local African-American run and staffed newspaper. He joined the Tribune full-time in 1926, and worked there until the early 1940s.

During that timespan, Lacy covered baseball, in particular the rise of many Negro League stars, Jesse Owens’ historic performance at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and Joe Louis’ rise to heavyweight champion.

With racism still pervasive, Lacy began to lobby Senators owner Clark Griffith to consider adding players from the Negro Leagues, particularly the D.C.-based Homestead Grays. Griffith listened, but declined to participate in a groundbreaking moment.

Lacy continued to push for integration when he moved to the Chicago Defender, and then when he moved back to Baltimore to work for the Afro-American. There was no headway made officially until after the passing of Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944. 

A dialogue with Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey was started. With the help of Happy Chandler, Landis’ successor, dialogue turned into action. It led to Jackie Robinson signing with the Dodgers’ minor-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, on Oct. 23, 1942 – Lacy’s 42nd birthday.

“Jackie was not the best player in the Negro leagues,” Lacy told Firmite for Firmite’s piece, “but he was the most suitable. Oh, that’s a terrible word, suitable. But he was the right man. He had gone to a racially-mixed college, been an Army officer and had been such a football star at UCLA that he was used to media attention.” 

Another black, pitcher John Wright, joined Robinson in the minors, and Lacy was put on the Robinson beat by the Afro-American. While chronicling Robinson, Lacy faced racist indignities and hardships of his own.

Even as Robinson broke the barrier and other MLB teams followed, Lacy continued to push for equality — equal pay for black athletes, an end to segregated team accomodations on road trips, an end to segregation in other sports, Negro League players’ inclusion into the baseball Hallf of Fame. 

He covered Grand Slam tennis titles won by Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, Wilma Rudolph’s 1960 Olympic Games triumph and Lee Elder breaking the color barrier at the 1975 Masters.

Lacy worked at the Afro-American through the ensuing four decades, and filed his final “A to Z” column days before his passing. He is also a member of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, a Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Famer, and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. Lacy received the J.G. Taylor Spink award from the BBWAA, an honorary doctorate from Loyola University Maryland on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers and the Fredrick Douglass Award from the University of Maryland system.

He was also the Associated Press Sports Editors Red Smith Award winner in 1998 and has a United Negro College Fund scholarship in his name.

“If a Grantland Rice was like a Babe Ruth, then a Sam Lacy was like a Henry Aaron,” wrote Ralph Wiley for ESPN’s Page 2 a few days after Lacy’s passing. “Steady. Every day. Maybe it’s not a matter of who was best at their top end. Maybe it’s total cumulative effect of their game. Hank Aaron hit three home runs in a game only once. The rest still add up to 755.”

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