Oh captain, my captain …

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Oh captain, my captain …

  1. Pingback: The black press: A complex past, a pivotal future | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: The grave marking effort soldiers onward | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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