Sports was a cause as much as a game

Sam Lacy has witnessed practically the entire sweep of 20th-century sports.

He drew his first impressions during a boyhood spent in Washington, D.C., where he was a "ball chaser" and usher at old Griffith Stadium. During the 1940s, he played a role in the integration of major-league baseball. And now, as possibly the most-senior sports scribe in America, he keeps tabs on modern sports developments for The Afro-American newspaper, published in Baltimore.

Despite this long view, he hasn't seen it all, a point underlined while guest lecturing to a class at Northeastern University in Boston - this before receiving an Excellence in Sports Journalism Award from the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

When a student asked his firsthand impressions of Jesse Owens's 1936 Olympic heroics, Mr. Lacy chuckled. "I may be old. but I'm not Methusaleh," he said, momentarily losing sight of his own journalistic timeline, which stretches back to 1934.

The breadth of his sportswriting experiences makes people listen when he speaks.

Lacy calls fullback Jim Brown the greatest athlete he's ever seen, partly because the former football great was a multisport standout in college, excelling in basketball, baseball, as well as lacrosse.

Michael Jordan? "He's a good basketball player, period," says Lacy, giving his best-player nod to Oscar Robertson, who "did it all" playing on less talented teams.

Lacy missed seeing Jesse Owens perform under Hitler's gaze, but he didn't pull any punches in writing about the fabled sprinter.

"He never took a stand on the racial issue, which is why I criticized him and why he wasn't popular with the African-American community," Lacy says.

Interestingly, Lacy was also initially opposed to the black-fisted defiance of two black American medal winners at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. "I felt they had no business taking the world stage [during the medals ceremony] and showing a personal grudge. I thought they should have done what Lew Alcindor [now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] did and stay home."

Later, Lacy had a change of heart and realized the value in letting the world know of black Americans' dissatisfaction with their situation.

Lacy began his sportswriting career with the now-defunct Washington Tribune in 1934, but didn't cover an Olympics until 1960. When he finally did make his Olympic debut, he says he had the pleasure of reporting on one of his most admired athletes, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals.

Others on this list include Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Joe Louis, and little-remembered Syracuse University quarterback Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a black whose race, Lacy learned, was obscured by calling him a Hindu.

Beginning in the 1930s, Lacy used his contacts as a sportswriter to champion the cause of integration. He approached Clark Griffith, owner of the woeful Washington Nationals, about signing Negro league stars.

Griffith rejected the idea, but Lacy and his friend Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier continued to drum up interest for integration through letters, telegrams, and phone calls to influential baseball people, including fellow writers. After World War II, Dodger owner Branch Rickey was ready to break baseball's color line by hiring a black player. Lacy and Smith set about identifying the most logical trail blazers and came up with two names: Robinson and Larry Doby. They entered the majors in that order.

Lacy's meritorious service as a long-standing and influential baseball writer was recognized last summer, when he was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

During the 1940s and '50s, Lacy says, he was a confidant to many African-American players. "They felt I could be trusted, which is one of the reasons I was able to get so many in-depth stories," he says.

Lacy's career has been spent almost entirely working for African-American newspapers, first in Washington and Chicago, and since 1944 in Baltimore.

Asked why he's stayed with black newspapering rather than joining a major metropolitan paper, Lacy says it was freedom, not insecurity, that inspired his decision. "As it is," he observes, "I make my own decisions and am not confined to a particular beat." Without such latitude, he doubts he would have covered Jackie Robinson's career to the degree he did. Lacy, for example, was present for Robinson's first major-league game on Opening Day 1947.

Lacy says he enjoys covering sports now just as much as he ever did. What upsets him is the tawdry showmanship by some athletes who celebrate their own modest successes with what he considers disturbing hubris.

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