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Ron Fimrite
October 29, 1990
A resolute writer helped bring change to sports
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October 29, 1990

Sam Lacy: Black Crusader

A resolute writer helped bring change to sports

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To reach his office at the Afro-American newspapers in Baltimore, sports editor Sam Lacy ascends three flights of stairs, 36 steps in all, three times a week, in a building lacking—for the moment, and from time immemorial—an elevator. And in a normal workday, Lacy charges downstairs and up three or four times, commuting from the city room on the third floor to the business office on the first and the composing room on the second. That's a lot of climbing for a man whose 87th birthday was Oct. 23, and who is in his 60th year as a working newspaperman. But Lacy doesn't mind it one bit. What is life, after all, but an uphill pull. He'll take his ups and downs, sustained as he is by a most workable philosophy:

"If you're born black," Lacy says, "you know when you wake up in the morning that the day ahead can't be any worse than the one before. So you take a positive attitude from there. All blacks have a birthmark of optimism."

Lacy's own intractable optimism has served him well throughout his years. When he attended Oriole games this season in once segregated Baltimore he saw a black manager commanding white and black players together on the field. "That pleases me," Lacy says. "I am also pleased that Bill White was named president of the National League. There is an irony there, you know, because the National League has only had one black manager, our Frank Robinson, when he was with the San Francisco Giants."

That baseball has come as far as it has in racial integration—on the playing field, at least—is due in no small part to Lacy himself, who, along with other black newspapermen of their time, particularly the late Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and the late Joe Bostic of the now defunct People's Voice in Harlem, campaigned to desegregate the game years before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodger organization. The saga of Lacy, Smith, Bostic and other black sportswriters is a chapter in the Robinson story left unwritten by those who lived it. As author Jules Tygiel recounted in his 1983 history of those years, Baseball's Great Experiment: "They [the writers] too were victims of Jim Crow.... Segregation hid their considerable skills from the larger white audience and severely restricted their income-earning potential. Yet they rarely mentioned their own plight. Indeed, the barriers for black journalists lasted long after those for athletes disappeared."

Lacy is a wiry man, short and slim, with sharp facial features inherited from his mother, Rose, a Shinnecock Indian. He looks no older than 55 and plays golf almost every nonworking day, shooting roughly his age at the short Rock Creek course near his home in northeast Washington, D.C. He was born in Mystic, Conn., but when he was two, his family moved to Washington, a city then as racially segregated as any in the Deep South. The Lacy family had a long history of breaching the racial barricades. Lacy's grandfather, Henry Erskine Lacy, was the first black detective on the Washington police force. His father, Samuel Erskine Lacy, was a researcher in a law office, a rare position of responsibility for a black man in the early part of this century. Young Sam inherited from his father a love of sport, particularly of Clark Griffith's old Washington Senators. "My father was a dyed-in-the-wool fan," he says. "He'd sit out in the Jim Crow section in rightfield almost every game." As a teenager, Lacy shagged flies at Griffith Stadium during batting practice for such stars as Goose Goslin, Joe Judge, Clyde Milan and Walter Johnson, and worked as a vendor in the stands. He also played semipro ball in all-black leagues in and around Washington, often against such stars of the Negro leagues as Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, John Henry Lloyd and Martin Dihigo. His exposure to the best of both black and white baseball gave him a rare perspective.

"I was in a position to make some comparisons, and it seemed to me that those black players were good enough to play in the big leagues," Lacy says. "There was, of course, no talk then of that ever happening. When I was growing up, there was no real opportunity for blacks in any sport. It never crossed our minds as kids to aspire to the big leagues. Even the best players considered it a lost cause. But the idea stuck with me. I felt that not only were blacks being deprived of the opportunity to make some money but that whites were being deprived of the opportunity to see these fellows perform. I could see that both were being cheated. And so, with a certain amount of ego, I took it upon myself to be the wedge."

Lacy was an all-sports star—playing football, baseball and basketball—at Armstrong High in Washington, and he earned a bachelor's degree in education at Howard University with every intention of becoming a coach. But he had worked part-time for The Washington Tribune, a black weekly that is now defunct, and decided on a career in journalism. He joined the Tribune full-time in 1930, "doing a little bit of everything," he says. "The average black reporter of my age is generally pretty well-rounded"—presuming, that is, there are any reporters, black, white or anything else, his age. Lacy eventually landed a job with Tribune sports editor William Lautier. And on Oct. 23, 1937, the day of the Maryland-Syracuse football game in College Park, Md., Lacy wrote a story that exposed racism at its most hypocritical in college athletics.

Syracuse's star passer was a halfback named Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, known as "the Manhattan Hindu," who was supposedly the first Indian ever to play American football. Maryland was then a segregated school that refused to countenance any competition with blacks. But the color line did not extend, apparently, to a purported Brahman, and Sidat-Singh was scheduled to take the field with the lily-white Terps that Saturday afternoon. Lacy learned that Wilmeth was born in Washington, the son of black parents, Elias and Pauline Webb, and that after Elias's death Pauline married Dr. Samuel Sidat-Singh, an Indian surgeon who adopted Wilmeth and moved the family to New York.

After Lacy's story appeared, Maryland refused to allow Sidat-Singh on its field. Without him, previously unbeaten Syracuse lost 13-0. In his account of the game, Lacy wrote: "An undefeated football record went by the boards here today as racial bigotry substituted for sportsmanship and resulted in the removal of the spark plug from the machine which was Syracuse University's football team.... Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a Negro who had won his way into the hearts of his Syracuse teammates and student associates, was denied the privilege of playing in today's 'contest' when Maryland University [sic] officials learned his nationality and demanded removal...."

A few months later, Lacy approached Griffith, the Senators' owner, with a proposal to integrate the ball club. Griffith listened patiently, then protested that if he hired blacks he would be contributing to the demise of the Negro leagues. Lacy was unimpressed. "The Negro leagues were a symbol of segregation," Lacy says. "If they had become successful, the world outside might never have known of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The black leagues were separate and unequal."

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