Writers Lacy, Smith played big role in baseball integration
By Jonathan Mayo
[Editor's note: On Friday May 9, 2003, Sam Lacy died at age 100. This story originally appeared as part of MLB.com's Negro Leagues Legacy in February 2002. (Commissioner's statement on Lacy's death) ]
Journalists are generally told to cover the story, not be the story. There are times when exceptions should be made.
When Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy plied their craft in the 1930s and 1940s, it was such a time. They not only covered the integration of professional baseball in 1946, they played a major role in forcing its occurrence.
With Smith working in the west at the Pittsburgh Courier and Lacy in the East with first the Washington Tribune and then the Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers, the two combined efforts to pressure owners and gain favor in the "white" press for the desegregation of baseball.
Lacy could never understand why baseball was segregated in the first place. Growing up in Washington D.C., he used to shag flies and run errands for the Washington Senators in return for seats in the stadium.
A bit older, Lacy played a little sandlot and semipro ball, and thought there wasn't much separating the players he saw in those games from the ones he saw playing for and against the Nationals.
"I had seen the teams come into play [the Senators]," the now 98-year-old Lacy remembered. "Having seen these guys, I got to thinking that some of these ballplayers, watching them play, are no better than the guys that play in the Negro Leagues. It just didn't seem proper or right."
Smith, while with the Courier, not only covered the two Negro League teams in Pittsburgh -- the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays -- he also covered the Pirates. He often asked players in the National League if they thought the players in the Negro Leagues could compete with Major Leaguers. He polled all players and managers in the National League with that question and the results were astounding: 75 percent favored integration, 20 percent opposed, with five percent having no opinion.
When Smith presented these findings to Major League owners the following year in a meeting, he received no response.
Both Smith and Lacy campaigned for integration actively in their columns. Many of them were picked up by wire services and re-printed in other newspapers. It was a major weapon in their cause.
"Absolutely," Lacy said. "One of the main points was that baseball would accept anybody. Ex-convicts ... I gave a lot of explanations about people who could be more undesirable than black guys."
Smith's first real movement in a positive direction came in Boston. In advising local politician Isadore Muchnick how to gain Boston's black vote, he told Muchnick not to support the City Council's yearly vote to allow Sunday baseball in Boston unless the Red Sox and Braves agreed to give Negro Leaguers a tryout.
The teams agreed, and Smith picked Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe for the tryout (Satchel Paige was left out because he was deemed to old, a call Smith later regretted, and Josh Gibson wasn't included because the Grays' owners protested). The tryout didn't get much publicity or a contract offer for any of the three players involved.
On his way back to Pittsburgh from Boston, Smith stopped in New York to see Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers. It was 1945, and it was known Rickey was planning a third Negro League as a cover for his interest in signing a black player. Smith had success with Rickey and it was soon after this meeting that Rickey began concentrating on Jackie Robinson.
"Wendell and I had a friendly exchange," Lacy remembered. "He thought Jackie Robinson would be the best choice. We agreed Jackie wasn't the best player at the time, but was the most suitable player. He had played against white competition, was a college guy. So we went with Jackie. Wendell approached Branch Rickey first and got a promise from Branch to think about it."
Lacy, who was also busy getting support from white columnists like Shirley Povich, wasn't as successful when he tried to contact Washington's owner.
"I approached Clark Griffith of the Washington team, and he told me it wouldn't be workable," Lacy said. "There were too many southerners in the league and there would be too many fights. I told him that was something baseball should police if they were serious. He said baseball wasn't ready."
Luckily, Rickey and the Dodgers were ready, and signed Robinson in 1946. Again, Smith was more than just a columnist. He assisted the Dodgers in finding housing for Robinson in Spring Training and when the Dodgers traveled.
In a letter found in the Baseball Hall of Fame's archives (The Wendell Smith Papers), Smith wrote to Rickey on January 14, 1946 that the Courier was "... willing to pay all my expenses in connection with this service; we are trying to render the cause of Democracy in the country, so ably championed by you."
Smith followed Robinson when he played with Montreal in the International League and then with the Dodgers in 1947. His friendship with Robinson led to Smith authoring the player's autobiography, Jackie Robinson, My Own Story, released in 1948.
It wasn't always the easiest task, figuring out housing in those early years. Lacy remembered the Dodgers trained in Daytona Beach when Robinson signed in 1946. They thought they'd be able to integrate that spring.
"The Daytona Beach authorities refused that," Lacy said. "They moved to Sanford, Fla. The conditions [for Robinson and the black press] were so horrible. They moved to Cuba the next year, thinking that would settle things. But in Cuba, it was the same thing, a fleabag hotel."
Next, they tried the Dominican Republic. It was wonderful in one regard: Everyone stayed together in one hotel.
"We stayed there a year and conditions were ideal, but it wasn't economically feasible," Lacy said. "Teams wouldn't come down to play exhibitions, so the Dodgers were behind in training.
"But the Dodgers' presence there really had an influence on baseball. I think it's one reason there are so many Dominicans playing in baseball now."
Aside from those difficulties, it was an amazing time for both Lacy and Smith. All the work they put in behind the scenes was paying off.
"It was wonderful," Lacy said. "As a result of that success, Wendell went to the Chicago American, the daily. I preferred to stay with the Afro because it had given me so much freedom to do what I wanted to do.
"It also gave me three years to keep on the Jackie Robinson story."
Lacy and Smith weren't done breaking color barriers. Both were among the first black writers to gain entrance into the Baseball Writers Association.
"I was the very first," Lacy said with pride. "Joe King and Ken Smith recommended me in 1948. I became a member, got my card. I think Wendell got his card when he went to Chicago."
Their work wasn't done. While at the American, Smith continued to push for the integration of all Spring Training sites. Lacy kept - and keeps -- tirelessly working as well.
"My editor wrote a story about me two weeks ago," said Lacy, who still writes a column for the Afro American. "He wrote that I never seemed to be satisfied. I worked on integration on the field, integration of housing. I worked on black coaches and managers. Last month, I began arguing for the acceptance of [Donald] Watkins."
For all of those accomplishments, both Smith and Lacy were enshrined in the writers wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Smith received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award posthumously in 1993, while Lacy gained entrance in 1997. Lacy, while honored, lived up to his recent editor's words: he wasn't satisfied.
"It was a very nice experience," Lacy said. "I felt honored that so many of my friends from Baltimore and Washington, some even from Florida, Texas and Kansas City were on hand to see it.
"Like Ted Williams in 1966, I said I enjoy being inducted, but I wonder when more than just one or two of us will be here. Only Wendell had been inducted."
Lacy, for his part, doesn't plan to stop letting people know what he's thinking. His current column is aptly called, "Viewpoint" and his son joins him with "Another Viewpoint" every week. There are no plans for retirement, at age 98.
"I'll keep doing it as long as the Lord will let me, and as long as the paper will accept me."
Jonathan Mayo is a senior writer for MLB.com based in New York. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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