May 8, 2003
MAY 8, 2003 - Legendary Sportwriter Passes Away
Sam Lacy, 99, the sports editor and columnist for the Baltimore-based Afro-American newspapers since 1943 who had been a crusader in the 1930s and 1940s for the inclusion of black athletes in major league baseball, died May 8, 2003 at Washington Hospital Center.
He had dysphagia, an esophageal disorder that makes it difficult to swallow, and he suffered from malnourishment.
In the 1930s, more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Lacy was campaigning in newspaper sports columns against racial policies that kept black players off major league teams.
In 1937, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith told Mr. Lacy that "the time is not far off when colored players will take their places beside those of other races in the major leagues. However I am not so sure that time has arrived yet."
At the time, Griffith's comments were taken as an indication that the American League Senators would be among the first clubs to sign a black player, but that was not to be. Griffith opposed the signing of Robinson by the Dodgers, and he did not sign a black player for the Senators until 1954.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lacy had gone elsewhere with his campaign to integrate baseball. In 1940, he joined the Chicago Defender, another black newspaper, where he started a letter-writing campaign to major league baseball owners.
He returned to Washington in 1943 and joined the Afro-American newspapers, where he successfully lobbied the baseball owners to set up an integration committee. But the committee never met, so he appealed privately to Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers, who in 1945 signed Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals, a Dodger farm team.
Mr. Lacy covered Robinson during his year with Montreal and his break-in year with the Dodgers.
Mr. Lacy was born in Mystic, Conn., and moved to Washington as a child. He graduated from Armstrong High School and Howard University. For two years after college, he was a radio sports commentator. Then, in 1934 he became sports editor of the Washington Tribune. Soon after that, he began campaigning against the baseball color barrier.
"I played semipro ball, and I realized that some of these (black)ballplayers I played against were just as good as some of those (white) players that I had seen coming into Griffith Stadium," Mr. Lacy told The Washington Post's Kevin Merida in 1997. "And I couldn't understand why there was this barrier."
In fact, during the 1940s, some of the nation's best black ballplayers were already playing at Griffith Stadium with the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League, and they played before capacity crowds. In 1943, catcher Josh Gibson hit 10 home runs over Griffith Stadium's left and center field fences, which was more than any American League player had hit.
Commuting by auto to the Afro-American offices in Baltimore, Mr. Lacy continued writing his sports column until he died. He wrote his last column from the hospital and gave it to his son, Tim, who suggested some minor changes. A week before he died, he was watching baseball on television from his hospital room.
In 1998, Mr. Lacy was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. "Let me thank everyone as they do in the Academy Awards. . . . Everybody from great-grandmothers to the pet canary," he said at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. He also was a winner of sportswriting's Red Smith Award.
His wife, Barbara, died in 1969.
In addition to his son Tim, of Columbia, survivors include a daughter, Michaelyn Harris of New York; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.