Johnny Wright, U.S. Navy ace

I apologize for going AWOL for two weeks — I had a couple of pressing deadlines I had to meet, and, per my usual, I kind of procrastinated. Kind of. Just a bit.

Anyway, in doing one of those articles — a summary of Chicago’s blackball history — I came across a few neat little bits and pieces that I wanted to put out there over the next week while I try to work on some longer, more personal posts.

The first one I picked up on involved the Great Lakes Naval Training Center team in Great Lakes, Ill., which sponsored two baseball teams of naval servicemen during World War II — one white, one black. The African-American squad was formed partially to provide a competitive adversary for the base’s white squad, which was helmed by future Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.

Not surprisingly to readers of this blog, as well as other Negro Leagues volumes, the Negro Bluejackets did more than just compete — they won the Midwest Servicemen’s League title in 1944, in addition to successfully barnstorming around Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and other Midwestern states.

While the black club’s roster included only one huge name — Larry Doby, future star for the Newark Eagles and the Cleveland Indians, and 1998 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee — the aggregation was definitely studded with a solid core of other Negro League standouts of the day. Capitol University graduate Ensign Elmer Pesek [I haven’t been able to track down the Capitol reference] skippered the squad (I’ve seen other variations on his name, including first names Ernest and Al, as well as last name Peshek).

The African-American Bluejackets’ strength was undoubtedly its pitching staff, which, from all accounts, was comprised of just two guys. One was Herb Bracken, who hurled for the St. Louis Stars before joining the Navy.

The other was one of NOLA’s most prominent hometown lads, Johnny Wright, who first gained fame on a national scale when he posted an eye-popping mark of 30-5 for the Homestead Grays in 1943.

However, he’s probably best known, at least to the general public, as the man Branch Rickey signed a couple months after Rickey inked Jackie Robinson. Wright obviously didn’t find the same type of success in Organized Baseball as Robbie did; he never made it to the Dodgers themselves, then flitted out of Organized ball altogether by the end of the ’46 season. He returned to the Grays, where he continued to be a stalwart on the iconic Negro League team for several years before retiring to near obscurity. He died in a VA hospital in Jackson, Miss., in 1990.

Over the intervening decades, a few theories have been advanced regarding why Wright couldn’t match Robinson’s success — by many reports, he had major troubled with control once he entered Organized Baseball — but the bigger issue that springs from that debate is why Rickey even signed Wright in this first place? Did the Mahatma truly believe that the New Orleanian had the potential to make the Majors? Or was Wright brought on simply to provide Robinson, the Chosen One, a companion during that brutal first year (1946) and beyond? (I actually wrote a story on this discussion for Baseball America a few years ago.)

For a pitcher who was described by some blackball compatriots as the equal to Satchel Paige, Wright’s story of slipping away into failure is an unbelievably depressing one.

But that’s not the matter at hand here. For the purposes of this blog post, I just wanted to highlight Johnny’s time in the Navy during WWII. Although I have yet to find any of his actually service records (Ancestry hasn’t been helpful), his success as a hurler for the Bluejackets in 1944 was pretty well documented by the contemporary press.

Wright appears to have been the main workhorse of the two-man rotation; in addition to being the primary starter, he also came on in relief several times. The highlight of his season, though, was a sterling, seven-inning no-hitter he tossed on July 8 against the Naval Air School. Wright’s teammates also came to play, clubbing out 15 hits in the 13-1 victory. The Air School’s lone tally came in the fourth inning on an error and a sacrifice.

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1944

But that was hardly Johnny’s only prime performance. In May 1944, he entered in relief in the second inning against Fort Sheridan, who had run up four scores in less than two frames, and allowed only one more run in the Bluejackets’ 12-6 triumph. A month later, “Needlenose” Wright blanked the squad from Camp Custer, 1-0, giving up just a troika of safeties.

Then, in mid-August, 15,000 fans witnessed Wright dominating a team of local industrial league stars in Cleveland, giving up just two walks while fanning seven in the ’Jackets’ 14-0 pounding.

In addition to garnering press attention from papers at just about every locale the Great Lakes squad visited, Wright was watched by newspapers in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette, for example, occasionally included little blurbs about the NOLA native during the 1944 campaign. In its May 25, 1944, edition, the paper stated:

“Johnny Wright, former star hurler for the Homestead Grays, is keeping up the good work with the Great Lakes Negro baseball team.”

The black press, naturally, played up the service status and exploits of Negro Leaguers, and quite deservedly so. That included Billy Young of the Cleveland Call and Post, who authored a detailed profile of the Great Lakes team in July 1944 that included short bios of each player. Here’s how Young described Wright:

“John Richard Wright, right-handed pitcher, former member of the Homestead Grays, hails from New Orleans, Louisiana, is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 168 pounds. He won 30 games and lost 5 last year. He worked in the [famed East-West] All-Star Classic at Comiskey Park, Chicago. He operates now as a seaman, second class, is 27 years of age and handles the duties of a physical instructor exceptionally well. He learned his baseball with the Newark Eagles and the Toledo Crawfords.”

(Wright did don the flannels of both those teams, as well as the Atlanta Black Crackers before arriving in Pittsburgh.)

However, although he was excelling for Uncle Sam, Wright also had a handful of opportunities during the season to suit up with his old Homestead mates. Taking full advantage of furloughs, saw time for the Grays in a loss to the Birmingham Black Barons in mid-June, and he made an appearance at the famous and prestigious East-West All-Star Game in Chicago in August. (Pittsburgh Courier scribe Wendell Smith notes that Wright “was getting handshakes from all the ball players.”)

But it was a week or so later that Wright his biggest chance of the season to help the Grays, when the Homesteaders faced the Newark Eagles in a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the NNL’s first half.

And the Crescent City kid came through for Cum Posey’s crew, who pulled out a thrilling, 9-4 victory in the ninth inning. Wright earned the W, while the irascible Terris McDuffie was tagged with the loss.

(As a military-related side note, an article in the New York Amsterdam News described an incident at the game in which a reporter needled Grays slugger Josh Gibson about the latter’s absence from military service. The reporter suggested that Josh was “ducking” service.)

That seems to have been Wright’s final appearance for Homestead in ’44; he went on to finish his service with Great Lakes, while the Needlenose-less Grays nonetheless proceeded to win the NNL overall flag and defeat the Black Barons, 4 games to 1, in the Negro World Series.

To sum up Wright’s service, here’s how the July 2015 issue of Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime newsletter relates it:

“In 1944, Wright pitched for the Negro Varsity team at US Naval Training Station Great Lakes, Illinois. He was 16-4 during the regular season and a Midwest Servicemen League all-star selection in June of that year.”

So, overall, Wright had a quite solid season on the mound in 1944, most of it while representing the Navy, which is definitely admirable. In terms of the role of the Great Lakes Negro team played in the overall war effort, as well as shaping the public’s perceptions of African-American servicemen and athletes, well, that could be a bit more cloudy. In an age when pretty much the entire American military was still segregated — a fact that kind of flew in the face of our country’s stated drive to preserve equality and democracy across the globe during the war — and black servicemen were frequently kept out of active combat and given more humdrum duties, the legacy of ventures like the Great Lakes Negro squad is decidedly mixed.

(To be fair, the military also had an inclination to often keeping star athletes of all races out of active combat and placing them in assignments that helped them play and perform for Stateside troops as well as civilians as a way to boost morale for the war. For example, heavyweight champ Joe Louis fought several exhibition bouts for Stateside crowds while he was serving in the Army.)

Author Steven R. Bullock examined the purpose and impact of military teams during World War II, including on troop morale and public support, in his 2004 book, “Playing for Their Nation: The American Military and Baseball During World War II.”

In a condensed essay in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Sport History, Bullock noted that, while the Great Lakes men found a relatively decent amount of success, they were, unfortunately, an anomaly:

“The glaring exception to this preoccupation with athletics [in the WWII armed forces] involved African-American soldiers and sailors, who were often overlooked, ignored, or isolated by the American military. This inequitable treatment manifested itself very clearly in athletics, particularly in the realm of military baseball. At some of the larger military installations, such as the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, African American sailors did have the opportunity to compete on segregated baseball teams, and did so there with great success. In 1944, for example, a squad composed of African American sailors stationed at Great Lakes compiled an impressive 32-10 record and claimed the Midwest Service League title. However, for many smaller military bases, there were not enough African Americans to field segregated teams; thus, black soldiers and sailors often found themselves unable to compete on base-ball teams.”

As for Johnny Wright, he, too, remains an enigma, not just in the larger landscape of American baseball history, but also here in New Orleans, where his post-athletic life has always been shrouded in mystery.

When he was signed by the Dodgers, the local African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, ran massive spreads on the event and followed Wright’s progress in Organized Baseball, while national correspondents from other papers descended on the Crescent City.

However, once the local lad crashed and burned on the big stage, the local media gave him sporadic, fleeting mention as he rounded out his pitching career with the Grays and beyond.

After that, Wright worked a bunch of steady blue-collar jobs here and elsewhere, but in general he slipped into the ether, his life becoming just as puzzling as the reasons for his inability to match the success of Robinson and other black players who followed in Jackie’s path.

In fact, from what I’ve gathered, many locals — well, not many, really, because he’s sadly but largely forgotten here in his hometown — have just stories of fleeting encounters, tales of sightings at bars and in crowds. Whether Needlenose kept up with baseball or followed the sport on any level is just plain unclear, at least to this point.

One person who knew John Wright as well as anyone was legendary New Orleans player, historian and activist Walter Wright (no relation), who served as the patriarch of NOLA’s surviving Negro Leagues community for decades until his own death in 2002. In 1997, Wright was interviewed by the Times-Picayune newspaper, and he relayed a tale that was at best fragmented and mysterious.

“I’m sure most of his co-workers at the gypsum plant never even knew he was a ballplayer,” Walter Wright told the paper.

The article concluded with Walter telling the paper about giving the eulogy and Johnny’s funeral.

“And I when I looked over at his casket,” Walter Wright said, “I couldn’t help
wondering how many stories it contained – stories that now would never be told.”

One of my good friends here, Ro Brown, is an award-winning former TV sports anchor who currently works in the athletic department at the University of New Orleans.

On a couple occasions, Ro has related how, many years ago, he tried to track down John Wright and, at first, didn’t have much luck at all, until an old timer suggested Ro check a local dive bar. Ro says that even though he asked the man for the former star pitcher, the gentleman didn’t at first make the connection between “star baseball player” and the aging John Wright the man knew.

But Ro took the gentleman’s advice one afternoon and went to the bar, where he did, in fact, find John Richard Wright Sr., former pitcher for one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history and compatriot of Jackie Robinson, sitting alone in the gloomy tavern. The scene and discovery shocked Ro. Just the fact that such a phenomenal athlete — one who, at one time, was the talk of his hometown — had faded into such doleful obscurity was disheartening to Ro, who knows the history of sports in NOLA as well or better than anyone, especially when it comes to black baseball.

True, in modern New Orleans, the American pastime is, in many ways, an afterthought; once the Saints arrived and LSU turned into a pigskin power, football has reigned supreme in the bayou. Add in the fact that the city has had two NBA teams, and hardball just doesn’t have the appeal it once did. (We’ll see if the Baby Cakes can help change that this year. Oy.)

Johnny Wright’s story has also intrigued me as well, so much so that I was concerned that he, like so many other Negro League greats, was buried in an unmarked grave, so I decided to find his burial spot.

Fortunately — and this is what I was hoping for — Wright was given a full military burial, including a modest but proud grave marker, among family members in Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, which also includes the final resting places of musical legends Mahalia Jackson and James Booker, among others.

While I was working on my story on Wright for Baseball America, I made contact with a few of his descendants, but I was unfortunately unable to speak with any of them in depth. Since then, a multitude of other stories and projects have filled my calendar and to do lists, and I haven’t had a chance to follow up and speak with them.

I hope one day I can, because there’s so much I, as well as many other baseball history enthusiasts, want to learn about a man who not only starred on the mound but also served his country.

Oh captain, my captain …


Sam Lacy

A year or two after I graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s in journalism, I was searching for inspirations and influences, role models and heroes, people in the news industry — past or present — to whom I could look up and pattern not only work after, but my life and my worldview.

It was around that time that I had a revelation, in the person of Sam Lacy, the longtime sports writer/reporter/columnist/editor at the Baltimore Afro-American. From that point on, Lacy was among the brightest lights in my journalistic firmament.

In my last post, I did my best to compose a tribute to one of my other major influences, Dr. William Wiggins, who passed away just this past December. In this commentary, I want to trace how Lacy impacted my work and my life.

And I feel it’s critical that Sam’s legacy — not just on me but on the world of sports journalism as a whole — be detailed and recognized at this crucial juncture in the history of our nation and our media.

Twenty years ago, Lacy was inducted into the Writer’s Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a milestone that also came exactly 50 years after Jackie Robinson’s crossing of the Major League Baseball color line. But history — including, most recently, the Robinson biopic, “42” — has, in a way, skipped over the challenges Sam Lacy faced in and out of the press box, how he persevered, and how his triumphs impacted history.


While “42” prominently featured the role Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith played in helping Jackie to survive that brutal first season and aiding in the general public’s acceptance of Robinson in the “mainstream” of the national pastime.

That was undoubtedly appropriate, because Smith did, to a large extent, lead the way in clearing a path for Robinson in Organized baseball. There’s a reason Smith, in 1993, was the first member of the black press to receive the Hall’s prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in sportswriting.

But some members of Sam Lacy’s family apparently wasn’t happy with what they saw as the movie almost completely overlooking Lacy and the key role he played in baseball integration. Of course, for the purpose of the movie’s narrative, it might have made storytelling sense to streamline things as much as possible.

But it seems unfair that Lacy was left out. After all, four years after the venerated Smith received the honor, Sam became the second (and so far, last) such journalist to garner the Spink Award.

And, perhaps, that’s what it took for America and its sports pages to recognize Sam. It was at that point that larger society, and not just readers of African-American newspapers, came to understand Lacy’s importance on journalism and sports as a whole. The Washington Post, for example, ran a lengthy article by reporter Kevin Merida profiling Sam’s career and outlook in June 1997. The headline for the piece was, “Going to Bat for Robinson: Venerable Sportswriter Sam Lacy Helped Change the Face of Baseball.”

In his story, Merida noted how Lacy’s Spink accolades prompted a flurry of recognition for Sam, including an appearance on “Nightline” and an honorary degree from Loyola College of Maryland. Such honors, Merida penned, were absolutely overdue:

“Such attention is rare for a member of the black press, but Lacy is unique. He has become, by virtue of longevity and talent and wit, the oral historian for a group of crusading black scribes who played a little-known role in desegregating the big leagues. …

“Sam Lacy has outlasted the curmudgeonly owners he went up against, as well as most of his sportswriting colleagues, black or white. Indeed, he is said to be the nation’s oldest working journalist.”

That point right there presents one reason why Sam made an impression on me — his persistence, advocacy and zeal didn’t stop when the majors were integrated. And, years later, it didn’t slow up when he suffered a stroke.

He kept pursuing his passion for what’s right and just until practically the day he died, May 8, 2003, at the spry old age of 99. That’s 99! And he completed his final column for the Afro just a few days earlier. It literally took death to pry Lacy away from his trusty pen and paper. That devotion to his craft and to his readers is something that deserves admiration from any sportswriter — I’m certainly in awe of his inexhaustable work and dedication attempting — attempting to hone his or her craft.

I’m not the only one in the Negro Leagues community who draws lessons from Lacy and remains awed by his unceasing doggedness. One of my other role models, Leslie Heaphy, wrote in a 2008 essay in the journal “Black Ball”:

“He worked almost to the end, continuing to write about the glories and indignities he saw in the sporting world. Looking through the thousands of columns that he wrote over eight decades of reporting one sees a pattern of agitation, chronicling and championing causes. Whether it was pushing to get hotels desegregated for the ball players or encouraging Mr. [Clark] Griffith to desegregate the lowly Senators, Lacy gave up and never turned his back on what he thought was right. He helped keep the Negro League players and lots of other athletes in the press when the mainstream papers ignored them.”

Over his eight-decades-plus (another !!!) career, he didn’t just cover baseball in his popular column, “A to Z.” His advocacy spanned just about every major sport, from boxing (such as his coverage of Cassius Clay’s controversial membership in the Nation of Islam and transition to Muhammad Ali) to football (he lobbied tirelessly for the hiring of minority coaches in college and the pros) to golf to basketball to horse racing and everything in between.

There’s point of admiration No. 2 for me — a breadth and depth of interests and abilities that gave him such a multi-tooled flexibility and adeptness that his impact was felt across the sports spectrum. His ability to change gears, to shift on a dime to the pressing issues of the day just astounds me. I sometimes feel like writing solely about the Negro Leagues and baseball history can be exhausting and knotty. But Sam did it all, and he was always, always invigorated about his topic du jour. He even took on international issues, like American athletes participating in events in South Africa during the apartheid era.

In an August 2010 commentary on the Web site “The Sweet Science,” for example, writer George Kimball detailed Lacy’s coverage of Joe Louis’ heavyweight career, especially the roller coaster highs and lows experienced by the Brown Bomber. Kimball specifically relates how, at the 1941 title bout between defending belt holder Lewis and white challenger Buddy Baer — a searing fight eventually won by Louis via a heated disqualification in Lacy’s hometown of Washington, D.C. — esteemed Washington Post scribe Shirley Povich personally escorted Sam from the “colored press” section to a prized ringside seat.

For those and other exploits, Lacy joined Povich in the first class of recipients of the now coveted A.J. Liebling Award established by the Boxing Writers Association of America. But, in his 2010 piece, Kimball rightfully lamented how Lacy had yet to be ushered in the “observers” section of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a slight Kimball stated “that should … be addressed, and at the earliest possible moment.” Astoundingly, the omission still hasn’t been rectified.

In fact, some historians and writers believe Sam’s first major scoop was about pigskin, not horsehide, while he was a beat writer for the Washington Tribune, a since-folded black weekly, in 1937. Sam sniffed out that star Syracuse University signal-called Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wasn’t what the public was told and believed he was.


Wilmeth Sidat-Singh

Singh had been born to African-American parents, but after his father died, Singh’s mother, Pauline, married an Indian (i.e. South Asian) doctor named Samuel Sidat-Singh, who then adopted Wilmeth and gave him a new surname. Because of that — and because America’s sportive segregation allowed Indians to play with whites — Wilmeth, a black youth, “passed” as a South Asian during competition, even being dubbed “the Manhattan Hindu” by the press.

In the fall of ’37, the Orangemen were scheduled to travel to College Park to square off against the segregated squad from the University of Maryland. Heading into the game, Lacy uncovered a shocker — that the light-skinned Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wasn’t actually Indian but African-American, a discovery that prompted Maryland to, well, lose its shit and refuse to take the field against an opponent with a black player. The result? Previously unbeaten Syracuse, sans their leader, was blanked, 13-0.

Thanks to its upended of racial stereotypes and mores, wrote Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite decades later, the episode laid bare the two-faced, irrational, bigoted reality of our country’s athletic industry, turning fans’ (and writers’) perceived reality on its head. It was a stunning series of events triggered by Lacy’s unwavering pursuit of the truth, even if that truth really mucked things up on the sports page.

On top of his amazing versatility, Sam’s writing was deft, often subtle and consistently penetrating. He wasn’t a big fan of melodrama or sentimentality, eschewing flourishing bravado in favor of a fearless poke in the eye. He preferred to be plainspoken and no-nonsense, driving write at the point and stating his case in such a point-blank way that you had to pay attention. He could be blunt, almost making the reader uncomfortable with his honesty and caustic wit, even when that honesty might have peeved someone — or many people — off.

Take, for example, a column from 1939 (and re-published in 1994 in the excellent compilation of legendary reporters’ work, “Black Writers/Black Baseball”), in which he questioned insistence of lobbying for the entry of “colored” players into the major leagues while omitting one key facet of such an action. Wrote Sam:

“In fact, every corner has been surveyed, every stop-gap plugged by people who sought to lend a hand in the [desegregation] campaign. Even major league club owners have been quoted and league presidents solicited. The [major] leagues, from the commissioners on down to the players, have been canvassed for their views on the matter.

“But no one seems to have given a tinker’s damn about the ideas of the guys they’re trying to boot into the organized game [emphasis mine].

“The colored player, evidently, is big enough in the mind of the public in the mind of the public to make top-line baseball, but too small to have any worth toward opinions on the matter. …

“Since man first became endowed with conscience and a sense of appreciation, he has felt keenly elated at the prospect of getting something Why the, shouldn’t the colored player be interrogated on the proposal to open big league ball to him, something we think [italics in original] he wants, but never bothered to ask him [original] whether he does?”

Sam continued the column by displaying his aversion to hypocrisy and doublespeak by going ahead and interviewing players himself, doing the dirty work that other journalists and baseball figures shied away from. And the responses were revelatory, uncovering a level of skepticism on the part of the rank and file about the prospect of integration.

From Vic Harris’ prescient foreshadowing of blackball’s eventual death, to Jud Wilson’s pessimism about the South’s recalcitrance toward integration, to Dick Lundy’s weary cynicism, Lacy’s interviews revealed a complexity to the issue that rarely, at least up to that point, broached. He laid bare the stark fact that the prospective integration had more to overcome than just timidity and reluctance. He even showed Felton Snow’s doubt in the Negro Leagues’ best players’ ability to “act right” [his words] and his belief that “[M]any of the good players are bad actors …”

That column puts on full display Sam’s understanding that lofty ideals were always marred, at least partially or albeit temporarily, by stark, gloomy reality, and he was bold enough to tell his readers something they might not have wanted to hear.

Of course, Sam could be very optimistic and upbeat, too, and he knew that, with persistence and quiet dignity, anything was possible. As Associated Press writer Alex Dominguez explained in a 1991 profile of Lacy, the columnist attempted — and usually succeeded to lead by example, a trait and willingness that earned him the respect of and acceptance by his white colleagues. That positive reception was exemplified in 1948, when he became the first African-American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Dominguez’s article included comments from an interview with Lacy, who accepted all the (belated) accolades he was starting to receive by deflecting many of them toward his colleagues.

“I did pioneer. I fought for it, but I can’t take the credit for doing it all,” he told Dominguez.

Later in the article, Lacy recounted a now-famous tale of adventure in a press box in one of the press boxes he visited while covering Robinson:

“I was told I couldn’t go in the press box. That happened quite frequently, like in Cincinnati, for example. I took a chair up on the roof. Shortly after I got up there, several of the white writers came up along with me.

“‘I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ They said they came up for some sun. They showed they were supporting me. They had just come from Florida and certainly didn’t need any more sun.”

Dominguez’s piece concluded with another comment from Sam, this one representing a prescient summary of his career — and the history he helped to change:

“I was not particularly interested in my personal achievements. What I wanted to do was open a door for someone else. I felt we would never have Blacks in the Baseball Writers Association if we didn’t have one in [the press box].”

When Sam Lacy died in 2003, the tributes from his colleagues and acolytes poured forth as they noted the passing of a man whose quiet confidence and unwavering search of the truth and what was right. One of the most prominent modern inheritors of Lacy’s legacy is award-winning New York Times commentator William Rhoden, whose “Sports of the Times” columns picked up the socially conscious torch that Lacy ignited so many years ago.

Like Lacy, Rhoden — who is one of my favorite writers working today — has never been intimidated by popular opinion and hostility from pundits, the public and the athletes he covers. (Check out his incendiary book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” and the combustible reaction it received from certain quarters.)


William Rhoden

In a May 17, 2003 column, Rhoden feted one of his sportswriting forefathers, describing Sam as, perhaps, journalistic equivalent of a construction worker who rolls up his sleeves, puts on a hard hat and uses a jackhammer — in this case, his caustic, cutting pen — to dig into the foundation of the matter. Wrote Rhoden:

“Through Sam, I learned that this was a nose-to-the-grindstone business — if you worked the way he worked. And I liked the way he worked. Someone asked me whether Sam showed me the ropes, but he essentially told me that there were no ropes, just a long, hard road littered with challenges.”

“Sam was a crusader; I became a crusader.”

Later in the column, Rhoden penned a paragraph that both lauded Lacy as a visionary but also revealed that the recently passed legend was also human, a curmudgeon who sometimes suffered from a “these kids today” attitude.” Wrote Rhoden:

“Lacy was part of a generation of African Americans who believed that struggles or movements were larger than the needs and wants of one individual: larger than Jackie Robinson, larger than Joe Louis, larger than Muhammad Ali, larger than the younger generation of athletes he didn’t always understand.”

Such a comment encompasses why sportswriting and historical perspective are necessary tools to producing vital, pertinent, pressing journalism — a trait I’ve tried to cultivate myself during my career, with admittedly less success than Sam — but also how clinging to the past and failing to update one’s beliefs and principles can sometimes prevent you from adapting to the ever shifting mores of sports and of society.

And yeah, that’s my worldview to a T, largely because studying and writing about the Negro Leagues and the grueling but ultimately successful process of integrating the national game. As Negro Leagues historians, almost by definition, must couch and contextualize our work through the prism of the racial and social injustice that marred our American society for so long.

Taking a magnifying glass to the annals of this country’s darker eras necessitates such a longview perspective. Becoming a good Negro Leagues historian and writer simply must include the elimination of sociopolitical myopia as well as the discarding of rose colored glasses. We must, by our nature, confront our nation’s psychological demons and the ways they have, in a way, permanently scarred our society and our sport.

And doing that also requires us to study and analyze the groundbreaking work and writings of such legends as Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith, Fay Young, Bill Nunn, Dan Burley, Chester Washington and many others, for they’re the ones who not only helped change our national consciousness but also served as scribes and chroniclers who record that evolution for later generations to enjoy and interpret.

One such chronicle is Sam’s autobiography, “Fighting for Fairness: The Life Story of Hall of Fame Sportswriter Sam Lacy.” For me, while player autobiographies — like the revelatory and celebratory “I Was Right on Time,” by Buck O’Neil and “The Black Lou Gehrig,” by Buck Leonard — no doubt serve as both an inspiration and a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom — it was “Fighting for Fairness” that probably impacted me and my career the most.


Sam’s book recounts, in exquisite detail, every step of his journalistic experience and growth, from his hardscrabble youth (he was himself a multi-sport star as a young adult) in Washington, D.C., during the first two decades of the 20th century; through his early columns for the Chicago Defender in the 30s; his coverage of Robinson and Rickey and steamrolling integration; the indignities of being refused service and refuge at hotels and restaurant; through his later crusade for diversity in the front offices and coaching staffs; through the turbulent 1960s; and everything that came after, such as receiving long overdue awards and accolades from his peers, the public and the sports industry.

Throughout the tome, Sam sprinkles bits of social commentary amongst his recollections, placing each chapter in the context of the day and the hurdles he and his contemporaries had to clear along the way. Take this excerpt from the third chapter:

“In the mid-1930s, black sportswriters kept tabs on what was going on in their own communities and in national sports involving blacks; at the same time, we tried to keep the heat on that period’s racial segregation in sports.”

Or this from Chapter 8:

“Leadership in the major leagues of basketball, baseball, and football were hard to come by for black coaches and managers, even after years of integration. My efforts to promote the hiring of blacks for these jobs over the years included providing Afro-American readers with running accounts of the hiring of whites, some over and over again even though they were consistently posting losing records — the old retread system.”

And how the press often serves as a surrogate for the public interest and and its frustration with the dual realities of athletic arrogance and crippling hypocrisy:

“One didn’t have to be a sportswriter to realize that athletes suffered a lot of self-induced tragedies. Sometimes other players took it upon themselves to purposefully endanger opposing competitors. Sometimes the jeopardy evolved out of doing what other Americans did with impunity. Pleasant or not, no matter how news came down the pike, I had to deal with it.”

Such a piercing objectivity seems more necessary than ever today, when modern journalists and their work are being assailed as “fake news” and “enemies of the American people.” The media as a whole suffers — partially self-induced and deserved, undoubtedly — from abysmally low approval ratings from the public and is constantly forced to fend off and absorb body blows from countless entities and individuals who have zero respect for and trust in what they do and their profession. We face an open hostility — again, a big part of it earned — and misunderstanding about the intricacies and complications of what we do, and our efforts are frequently upended by a flood of “alternative facts” and outright fiction.

In this day and age of social media and blogs and Web series and podcasts, it seems almost impossible to discern what pioneers like Sam Lacy — or Grantland Rice or Red Smith or any other pillars from our past — would think about the nature and flow of information swirling around American citizens. For an old-timer like Sam — who, until the day he died, wrote his columns in longhand with his pen (a pen!) — it all would be baffling and overwhelming, not only because technological innovations weren’t his thing, but also because our modern media are often virtually devoid of the kind of straightforwardness and stark, clear-eyed analysis that Sam employed to elicit the change and evolution that our society so desperately needed at the time.

The world has changed so radically, for the better and for the worse, since Lacy’s heyday, that it almost warps reality persistently plagues it with bigotry, angst and spite.

Sam saw such distortion and obfuscation for what it was, and he slashed through the haze and smoke and mirrors to record history accurately and frankly. That simply isn’t happening today, and I’d imagine that such a dismal state of journalistic affairs would dismay Sam, but only to an extent. For someone as brave and dedicated Sam Lacy, it would just be another monstrous monolith just begging to be torn down and turned to rubble. He’d do what he did for eight decades — roll up his sleeves and get shit done.

Sam concluded his autobiography with an expression of humility and self-realization, another two traits I have attempted, however humbly, to assimilate into my work:

“Celebrity is all right for some people. I don’t like it. In all honesty, I can’t claim to have done anything to justify all the attention, though I do appreciate it. In the case of baseball integration, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I think that anyone else situated as I was and possessing a bit of curiosity and concern about progress would have done the same thing.”

That paragraph right there is so sublimely insightful, candid and reassuring that I can’t help but be encouraged and invigorated by it; not only is it saturated with modest, self-effacing analysis of his own person, but it also reflects a deeply held belief that anyone, if given the right tools and possessing an inquisitive spirit and desire for enrichment, can succeed on a personal level as well as a society-altering level.

For me, Sam Lacy was and is a hero, a teacher, a role model, an inspiration, someone I would dearly love to have met and asked for a word or two of a wisdom and acuity earned through a long lifetime of swimming against the current, bombarding the bastions of injustice, and delving into one’s own soul as a reflection of the society and reality around him.

My mentor, my friend


Farewell, Doc

Every so often, I’d like to tell y’all about some of the folks who’ve influenced me over the years, people who sparked the interest in the Negro Leagues that have driven me to promote the rich blackball heritage. These are the guiding lights in my life, my career and my passion …

The first pillar of my faith was undoubtedly Dr. William Wiggins Jr., the longtime fixture in the African-American Studies Department at Indiana University; he was even a founding member of the department’s faculty and eventually spent a lengthy tenure as its chairman. He arrived in Bloomington in 1969 and became the first African American to earn a PhD in folklore.

Doc Wiggins, as he was affectionately known to his peers and his students — and there were thousands of them over his tenure — taught numerous classes at IU over the years, but his most enduring and popular ones were the Black Church in America, and Sports and the Afro-American Experience. (His pursuit of the former class sprang from his own experience as an ordained minister and holder of a bachelor’s degree in divinity.)

It was the latter in which I enrolled during my sophomore (or maybe it was my junior) year at IU. Being a lifelong sports fan and a beat writer — I covered football, track and legendary Little 500 bike race (made famous by the movie, “Breaking Away”) on the sports desk at the Indiana Daily Student — athletics was my thang. (Well, along with listening to and learning about music, a love I pursued by taking two rock ‘n’ roll history classes taught by Glenn Gass and Andy Hollinden, but that’s another tale for another day.)

So taking Doc Wiggins’ sports class was, well, a no-brainer. We gathered at Woodburn Hall, one of the older buildings on the IU campus, and I quickly learned that my classmates included track triple jumper Jack Sullivan, with whom I’d become friends by covering the tack squad, and Calbert Cheaney, who earned the Wooden Award during his senior season playing under Bobby Knight. (Insert chair throwing joke here.)

And it was that class that opened up the world of sports history to me and fed my mind with both knowledge and passion. We learned about boxing icons Jack Johnson and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber was one of Doc’s research specialties), Olympic trailblazers Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, path-clearing net luminaries like the great Althea Gibson and and influential activist Arthur Ashe, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.


Joe Louis

But in addition to soaking up the events and characters that made the history of black sports legendary, the course went deeper, exploring the social, political and economic ramifications of the challenges, trials and tribulations faced by African-American athletes. And not just the stars in the black sports firmament, but the average Joe and Jane who used sports to escape dismal childhood situations and attempt to become somebody in the world.

We traced the development and evolution of African-American activism in athletics and learned about the figures who helped show people that sports wasn’t just games, but a vital thread in the fabric of American society. We started in the 1960s with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and others.

Perhaps most importantly, at least in terms of influencing my worldview, were the efforts and determination of Dr. Harry Edwards, who spearheaded the black athletes’ consciousness movement in the latter part of the decade, a drive that culminated with the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the famous, hand-raised protest made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand for the 200 meters event in Mexico City in 1968.

I then read Edwards’ seminal tome, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” which proved to be one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read. (Hopefully more on that in an ensuing post.)

The class then dived into the way collegiate athletics — especially high-profile sports like football and men’s basketball — often mouthed false promises and lip service to starry eyed players who were led to believe that they had a chance to become a well paid professional in the NFL or NBA. Countless athletes, however, eventually learned the were simply and cynically be used and chewed up by “The System,” a process that included the downplaying and outright discouragement of academics, which left them unemployed and without a college degree by the time the machine had spit them out.

The course also delved into one of the key issues (one that is often alluded to in popular discourse but rarely broached candidly and honestly) of African-American sports stardom — why black athletes seem to succeed in certain roles in certain sports like football, baseball and basketball, i.e. are they simply just genetically disposed to be better than whites at running, jumping and catching?

It’s a topic famously (or infamously) raised by football prognosticater Jimmy the Greek in the 1980s, one that got the sportscaster fired in disgrace — not, I think, because his comments weren’t explicitly racist or bigoted, but because American society continues to be so squeamish when it comes to facing up to such challenging, uncomfortable topics that we avoid them at all costs. In the class, our discussion of this tricky subject revolved around the excellent examination by John Hoberman, “Darwin’s Athletes.”

And … most pertinent to this here blog is that Sports and the Afro-American Experience became my first exposure to the Negro Leagues — when Doc began discussing Jackie Robinson’s life and career, he revealed to us and to me the overlooked but extremely crucial role blackball played in American sports history. By learning about Jackie, we also took in the Negro League team that launched his professional career — the one and only Kansas City Monarchs.

The floodgates open at that point … Satchel. Cool Papa. Buck (Leonard and O’Neil). Rube. Effa, Monte and Ray. It was only the beginning for me.

As part of the curriculum, we read Rob Ruck’s detailed, delightful book, “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh,” which, of course, included whole chapters about the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

That pretty much clinched things for me. Doc Wiggins had created a thirst in me that continues to this day.

During my senior year, I received an honors grant to research none other than Josh Gibson, a project that led me to read Mark Ribowsky’s bio of the Black Bade, “The Power and the Darkness,” as well as William Brashler’s popular novel, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”

But there was more, much more … Upon graduation, I moved to Rocky Mount, N.C., the hometown and lifelong residence of Buck Leonard. It was an opportunity I naturally couldn’t pass up, and I visited Buck at his home, a pursuit that instantly became one of the greatest moments of my life. (More on that encounter coming soon.)

While working for The Daily Southerner newspaper in Tarboro, N.C., I wrote an article about the induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 of pitcher Bill Foster, who lived in Tarboro for several years and hurled for semipro teams based across the Tar River in the historic town of Princeville.

Life progressed after that, and I shifted around the country, moving from North Carolina to Massachusetts to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. But I kept in touch with ol’ Doc Wiggins, even writing a profile about him for Indiana Alumni Magazine.

The article focused another way Doc remained dedicated to the student body at IU — for decades, he served as a mentor and father figure for dozens, if not hundreds, of student-athletes, helping to guide them through the challenges of balancing the field and the classroom and keeping them on the straight and narrow toward earning a degree and becoming functional, productive and happy members of society as a whole.

In the process, Doc became a valued and trusted advisor and confidante to several IU sports coaches, including none other than Bobby Knight, but also football coach Bill Mallory (the greatest pigskin pilot in IU history) and revered track/cross country coach Sam Bell, who died last year at 88.

When I interviewed Doc for my story, we met in the stands at Memorial Stadium in April as he eyed the football team going through spring practice. It was an overcast, drizzly day. Doc sat leaning on his cane, clad in a plaid wool jacket and dispensing wisdom earned over a lifetime of challenges and successes.

Doc again actively entered my life in 2001, when I returned to Bloomington to attend grad school, an experience that including being a student and TA in both the School of Journalism and the African-American Studies department, the latter of which brought me close to Doc once again as a mentor and advisor. During my second year of grad school, I even served as a teaching assistant for the very same class that launched my passion — Sports and the Afro-American Experience under Doc’s watchful eye and tutelage. I remember conducting a discussion section about the importance and impact of Curt Flood’s fight for free agency.

In addition, I wrote two magazine articles for which I interviewed Doc Wiggins, one about the NCAA and the other about the Milan Miracle, the season that served as the basis for the movie, “Hoosiers.” (My article argued that the movie carried subtle racial undertones and overshadowed the more important 1955 Indiana high school champion team, all-black Crispus Attucks High School, feature a young Oscar Robertson. Actually, harkening back to Doc Wiggins, I read the book, “But They Can’t Beat Us,” by Randy Roberts for his class.)


The Big O

Over my four years of grad school, Doc and I became close friends, and his sage advice and insightful wisdom guided me through my own life challenges. And, through it all, Doc never changed … his bald head fringed by crops of graying hair, eye glasses shifting from his nose to the hands, his eyes closing when deep in thought and conversion, his sly chuckles when making a point, his lumbering gait, his dry wit, his vast storehouse of knowledge … He also had a hip replacement while I was on campus, which made him more mobile and put a spark in his step as he approached 70.

When I had mostly completed my master’s degree coursework, my neighbors and family threw a graduation party and picnic for me, and, naturally, Doc attended, and he was ebullient and proud of my accomplishments and determination. As a graduation gift, he gave me a copy of Toni Morrison‘s, “Love,” a novel that’s still on my bookshelf today.

That party in May 2005 would be the final time I saw Dr. William Hawthorne Wiggins. Since finishing my master’s I’ve regretfully only returned to Bloomington once, and I sadly failed to keep in adequate touch with Doc over the years. I was lazy and self-absorbed, and I know regret and rue my apathy and inertia.

Late last year, another figure who proved vital to my development as a writer and critical thinker, John McCluskey (from whom I took a grad level class about literature in the Harlem Renaissance), emailed me to tell me that Doc wasn’t doing well health wise, a slow decline now accelerating as 2016 came to a close. He urged me to call Doc’s family, but with the holidays coming up, I shamefully neglected to do so.

Doc Wiggins died on Dec. 24, 2016, at the age of 82.

Tributes to the Indiana University fixture immediately poured forth, including comments posted to his obituary on One former teaching assistant of his opined:

“I am saddened beyond belief by the loss of ‘Doc,’ who took me in as part of the flock he watched over when I moved to Bloomington. I remember his fondness for all things IU, especially the basketball team. I was one of his teaching assistants for his Intro to African American studies course one year, and I learned lessons that I carry with me today, almost 20 years later. The IU and Bloomington communities have lost one of its great ambassadors and the world is a little darker …”

Penned a fellow faculty member:

“Bill was a truly wonderful individual who always brought a smile from those around him. He made an enormous difference in the lives of so many students, staff and fellow faculty at IUB. He was a big man with a big and open soul. I will miss his smile and warmth, but will keep his spirit always.”

Several students also brought forth and verbalized their sadness. One wrote that Doc “made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile.”

Another student stated that Doc “encouraged me beyond belief, one of my favorite professors at Indiana University. My deepest sympathies to his family,” while another said with bittersweet fondness:

Yet another pupil said:

“Dr. Wiggins will be deeply missed. He made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through, he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile. My prayers and support are extended to [his wife] and the family.”

Possibly the most eloquent, heartfelt elegy came from Dr. Fernando Orejuela, a faculty peer in Indiana’s Department of Folklore (Doc was an adjunct professor in folklore, possessing his PhD in that subject), who highlighted Doc’s impact on minority students and staff and on the IUB administration, which often followed Doc’s lead in making IU a more welcoming place for black and other students:

“For many of us who partnered with him as students, he was more than a great teacher. He was a very necessary mentor, and his mere presence and gentle-but-enormously-firm demeanor was all we needed to get straight and keep our eyes on the prize. During the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s and at a time when Bloomington was very unwelcoming of Black students on campus, Bill brought his wife Janice and daughter Mary Ellyn to IU to complete his study of African-American folklore and folklife.

“Together, he and Janice vigilantly made Bloomington a good place for minority students to come study and live — often asking us protesting, minority students if there were any place in the United States that was free of racism. There was none. It was and is our duty to continue to make IU and Bloomington better for the next generation. Esteemed Professor William Wiggins Jr., professor of African American and African diaspora studies and professor of folklore, you will be deeply missed. Peace.”

After Doc’s passing, the Indiana Daily Student published an article marking his death and celebrating his incredible impact on those around him, his family, friends, peers and students. The story featured a comment from Professor McCluskey:

“He was a loyal friend, loyal colleague and loyal citizen. He was always finding the good in his students, the good in his colleagues and the good in his community.”

Doc Wiggins’ death hit me extremely hard. Not only did I experience the loss of one of my most beloved and influential mentors — and the man who introduced me to the glorious world of the Negro Leagues — but it came within days of the death of my grandmother as well.

His passing left a hole in my heart, especially because I neglected to make contact with him before it happened and thank him for what he had done for me — his encouragement and, more importantly, his faith in me as a scholar, a teacher and a human being. That will forever be one of my biggest regrets in life.

But with this commentary, I try to make up for that mistake, but bidding a tearful sullen farewell to my mentor and friend.

Goodbye, Doc, and Godspeed. Thank you.