|More than a good newspaperman|
By David Aldridge
Special to Page 2
One of my true heroes died last week.
There are people you admire and respect for their talents or intellect, but there are very few who rise to the level of heroic. One definition: "Showing extreme courage, especially of actions courageously undertaken in desperation as a last resort." Another: "Surpassing the ordinary, especially in size or scale."
That sums up Sam Lacy to me.
Mr. Lacy was my voice when I didn't have one, my strength when I was weak, my grace in moments of peril. What is amazing is that he was all this not just for me, but for every African-American in the business of covering or enjoying sports -- and for any person of conscience, regardless of race. He did it for me even when I didn't know he was doing it. Even before I existed. Mr. Lacy blazed a wondrous trail as a reporter for parts of eight decades, championing the causes of inclusion and fairness both on the playing field and in the press room.
It shames me to admit that until my early 20s I didn't know who Mr. Lacy was or what he did. Yet another example of the wonderful educational system in these parts, and of my own foolishness. I did not know that Mr. Lacy was a star athlete at Armstrong High School and Howard University in Washington, D.C., a lover of baseball who admired both the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues.
I did not know that Mr. Lacy started his newspaper career in 1934 at the Washington Tribune -- and soon after, in Washington, in Chicago (at the Defender) and in Baltimore (where he became sports editor of the Afro-American in 1944), began a years-long campaign to integrate the major leagues. I did not know that in column after column, he and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier excoriated those who would make excuses for not including people of color in baseball.
Their views were so well-respected that Mr. Lacy and Mr. Smith had the ear of owners such as Brooklyn's Branch Rickey, who told them that he would soon address the problem of the color line. It was, in part, on the recommendation of Mr. Lacy and Mr. Smith that Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to be the person to integrate the majors -- and change this country.
But if his views were respected, his view from the press box frequently wasn't. Like any other African-American person in the first half of last century, Mr. Lacy's ability to do his job frequently was determined by where he was doing it. In far too many places, he was barred from the press box and told he could cover a game only from a nearby tree or seat in the "colored section" of a stadium.
Far too often, Mr. Lacy had to deal with indignities on his own, such as having to sit on the roof to work while his colleagues wrote inside. (Though sometimes, his fellow writers would sit on the hot tar paper with him, as they did in New Orleans; and sometimes, writers like The Washington Post's Shirley Povich, would protest on his behalf.)
Mr. Lacy and Mr. Smith weren't strident. They didn't have "takes." They were quiet men behind the typewriter, writing simply but forcefully. My kind of guys. You don't have to be loud when you have the truth on your side, and they did. Or, as another of my heroes, Howard Cosell, was fond of saying, "What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular."
Mr. Lacy followed Robinson around during his first years in the majors, dealing with the same disgraceful behavior that Robinson did, from accommodations to intimidations. There were cross burnings, and other threats, where he lived. Once, as the Baltimore Sun recalled in its obituary this week, Mr. Lacy led a story with the news that a car rental company had demanded the return of one of its cars after learning that Robinson and other black players had been in it.
The lives of black folk aren't chronicled so well in this country. During those tumultuous days before Robinson crossed the color line, the only way to read about his day-to-day existence was in the black press, through men like Mr. Lacy and Mr. Smith. Quite understandably, friendships were forged, making Mr. Lacy as much a confidant as a bulldog reporter.
It is a measure of the respect for both of these roles that athletes never held it against him when Mr. Lacy was critical of their on-field performance. Nor would they withhold from him their true feelings.
Mr. Lacy continued to cover Olympic Games and championship fights and continued to advocate for inclusion in football, in golf, anywhere it was needed -- which was everywhere, of course. He followed Lee Elder around Augusta National in 1975, when Elder was the first African-American allowed to play there. Of course, Mr. Lacy had to cajole his way onto the grounds himself, and it took an awful long time for him to be allowed in the press area.
By the time I finally got some of this through my thick head, Mr. Lacy was in his 80s, and I was working in Washington, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. Our Sports Task Force wanted to honor Mr. Lacy with the NABJ's Lifetime Achievement Award. There was, amazingly, some resistance from the national board, given that Mr. Lacy "only" covered sports -- a frequent problem for those of us who work this side of the journalism street.
Fortunately, through the hard work of Barry Cooper, then of the Orlando Sentinel and the Sports Task Force chairman, Mr. Lacy finally was given his due. He spoke very graciously of being so proud to see so many young reporters in the room, of differing colors and genders.
Amazing to me as well, as my career went through its various machinations, Mr. Lacy would be gracious enough to call unsolicited from time to time to praise me for something I'd written or said on television. He was patient and always sage with his advice, relentlessly positive, and he would always tell me how proud he was of me and others who had "made it" in journalism.
He had it backwards, of course. He was our pride.
I wish I had taken more time to drive that point home to him, but he was much too busy to chitchat, still cranking out a weekly column for the Afro-American. He was inducted into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 (after hard work on his behalf by Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe). I desperately wanted him to speak to the Sports Journalism class I taught, but we could never work out a date. His last column ran in the Afro last week. At 99, I guess, he didn't have anything more to say.
But as Mr. Lacy is being laid to rest Friday, I do have one thing I'd like to say:
David Aldridge covers the NBA for ESPN, ABC and ESPN.com.