Lacy, Samuel Harold (“Sam”)

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Lacy, Samuel Harold (“Sam”)

(b. 23 October 1903 in Mystic, Connecticut; d. 8 May 2003 in Washington, D.C.), sportswriter with the Baltimore Afro-American for more than six decades and a key figure in the drive to integrate baseball.

Lacy was one of five children of Samuel Erskine Lacy, a researcher in a law firm, and Rose Lacy. His mother was a Shinnecock Indian. When Lacy was two years old, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his grandfather, Henry Erskine Lacy, was the district’s first black detective.

The Lacy family was not affluent but had illustrious neighbors such as the composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, doctors of the Freedman’s Hospital, and faculty of Howard University. Lacy attended elementary and high school with children of the city’s black elite and those who would become internationally known. His high school classmates included Charles Richard Drew, the physician who developed a method for storing plasma in blood banks; William Henry Hastie, the first black federal judge; and the diplomat William George.

As a boy Lacy participated in athletics at the Twelfth Street YMCA in Washington. In tennis he advanced to the finals of the D.C. playground championships. After switching from Dunbar to Armstrong High School, Lacy became captain of the baseball team. He also played on the basketball team, which made it to the national championship game but lost. While still in high school, Lacy and several of his baseball teammates were waiters at New England resort hotels, where they played to entertain the guests.

Lacy’s youth was not all athletics. Family circumstances necessitated that he help with expenses. At the age of eight Lacy got his first job, as a printer’s helper, learning how to set type and run a rotary press. Lacy set pins in bowling alleys, shined shoes, sold newspapers, and was a golf caddy. He waited tables at the House of Representatives restaurant and on trains of the Union Pacific Railroad.

As early as his sophomore year in high school, Lacy wrote sports stories for the Washington Tribune. After graduating from high school he spent several years alternating between sports writing at fifteen dollars per week and playing, coaching, and promoting athletics. His baseball career took him to the Bacharach Giants, with whom he played against top teams of the Negro Leagues. Lacy left baseball to attend Howard University, where he stayed for one year.

In 1927 Lacy married Alberta Robinson in Washington. The couple lost two children before the birth of their son. Lacy was divorced from Alberta in 1952 and married Barbara Robinson the next year. Lacy credited his second wife with being a steadying influence.

By the early 1930s Lacy had decided to write about sports, a profession he would follow for approximately seventy years. He worked first for the Washington Tribune then moved a few years later to the staff of the Washington edition of the Baltimore Afro-American. Lacy used his regular columns to denounce racial discrimination and persons who highlighted the comedic aspects of black athletics. By 1935 Lacy was involved in a campaign to integrate Major League Baseball. Lacy called attention to the hypocrisy of college athletics whereby northern schools were requested not to use black players when they played schools in the South. He ridiculed those who tried to hide black players by calling them Indian or Hindu. In amateur sports so-called national championships that barred black or integrated teams drew Lacy’s ire.

In 1941 it appeared that Lacy’s career with the Afro-American might be at an end. The editor of the Washington edition objected to Lacy’s sponsorship of a basketball team, and the publisher asked Lacy to give up writing until the end of the season. Lacy moved to Baltimore and was assigned nonsports stories. In irritation he quit his job and headed for Chicago. Stopping briefly in Cincinnati, Lacy worked in radio to earn enough money to continue his trip. After a brief stint with the Chicago Sun, Lacy was hired by the Chicago Defender. He arranged a meeting with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner of the major leagues, to discuss the integration of Major League Baseball. Because he was a sportswriter at the time, Lacy was not on the delegation that attended the meeting. In Washington to visit family over Christmas 1943, Lacy met with the publisher of the Afro-American and was hired as a sportswriter for the flagship Baltimore edition. Lacy held that job until his death.

Lacy’s life took a dramatic turn in 1946 when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Lacy attended his first major league spring training, and for the next decade he virtually followed Robinson and other new black players around the league. In his stories and columns Lacy detailed the discrimination the players faced not only on the field but also in housing and in finding places to eat. Not all black players objected to segregation. Housed apart from the rest of the team, they avoided bed checks and other team rules.

One of Lacy’s missions in the 1950s and 1960s was continuing to fight racial discrimination in college athletics. He started by criticizing southern schools for turning down bowl games. When Louisiana passed a law banning interracial athletics, a number of northern schools canceled games and participation in tournaments. Lacy also criticized southern schools that implied they could not find black athletes who met their academic requirements when schools such as Harvard and Princeton never had such problems. In the 1970s and 1980s Lacy attacked the exploitation of athletes who were given substandard education but were kept in colleges as long as they had athletic eligibility. Lacy was equally hard on black athletes who believed that their prowess allowed them to take drugs and exhibit other types of antisocial behavior.

True to his lifelong battle against discrimination, Lacy’s interests extended beyond blacks and beyond the United States. As early as the 1960s Lacy was critical of the lack of attention given to female athletes. He considered diatribes about lack of femininity just as lacking in evidence as earlier charges that blacks could not compete equally with whites. Lacy was a consistent supporter of women’s participation in the Olympic Games and of Title IX, the first federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions, including their athletic programs. Lacy also supported the ban against South Africa’s participation in international athletics.

Late in his life, Lacy was hospitalized with an esophageal disorder that led to malnutrition, but the official cause of his death was kidney failure. Lacy’s last column, written at Washington Hospital Center and delivered to the Afro-American by his son, was published on 9 May 2003, the day after his death. He is buried in Fort Washington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Over the course of his long career Lacy accumulated many honors. He was one of the first African-American members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In 1997 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonym, Lacy received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing. He is recognized in the writers and announcers exhibit in the Hall of Fame.

Sam Lacy and Moses J. Newson, Fighting for Fairness (1998), describes Lacy’s younger years but emphasizes sports rather than his life. Obituaries are in the New York Times (12 May 2003), Editor and Publisher (19 May 2003), and Sporting News (26 May 2003).

Art Barbeau