Friday, April 15, 2016

Power of the black press propelled Robinson to break barrier

Journalist Sam Lacy played an integral role in breaking down baseball's color barrier.
Sam Lacy spent the better part of seven decades fighting racial intolerance and used the power of his words as a journalist to pave the way for Jackie Robinson. His work as a reporter and his tireless support of equality for black athletes ultimately changed the landscape of American sports. 

Born in Washington, D.C., Lacy grew up within walking distance of Griffith Stadium and worked there as a teenager, selling peanuts in a segregated section of the ballpark.

“I had seen the teams come into play [the Senators],” he said shortly before his death in 2003. “Having seen these guys, I got to thinking that some of these ballplayers, watching them play, are no better than the guys that play in the Negro Leagues. It just didn’t seem proper or right.”

Lacy began his journalism career as a part-time writer at the Washington Tribune while attending Howard University. He joined the paper full-time upon graduation and moved into the sports department where he quickly made a name for himself as an advocate for racial equality in sports.

“Baseball would accept anybody,” Lacy said. “Ex-convicts, anybody … I gave a lot of explanations in my stories about people who could be more undesirable than black guys to the white ball clubs.”

Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, was one of the first baseball officials Lacy spoke to about integration.

“I used that old cliché about Washington being first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League, and that he could remedy that [with integration],” Lacy said. “But he told me that the climate wasn’t right.”

Lacy moved from the Tribune to the Chicago Defender in 1940 and continued writing about the need for baseball to desegregate. It wasn't long before he gained the support of dozens of black sportswriters and even prominent white journalists, including Shirley Povich, a famed sports columnist from the Washington Post.

By 1944 Lacy had left the Defender and joined the Baltimore Afro-American. While there he petitioned major league owners to create an integration committee and sought reasoning as to why they wanted to keep blacks off the diamond. The only owner willing to meet was Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers.


It was a little more than a year later when Jackie Robinson signed a contract with Rickey to play for Brooklyn’s Triple A club in Montreal.

Lacy remained on Robinson's beat for another three years and was forced to cover games at times from the dugout because he wasn't allowed to sit in the press box with white reporters. 

“It would have been a selfish thing for me to be concerned about myself and how I was treated,” Lacy said prior to his death. "I did what I thought was right and I believe it made a difference."

Lacy continued covering sports for the Afro-American until his death in May of 2003. He was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
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BY PATRICK GORDON
Managing Editor
pgordon@philadelphiabaseballreview.com

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