The movie "42" omits the story of the Baltimore sportswriter, but Robinson himself understood the influence of the black press
|Sam Lacy, The First Black Sports Writer|
April 22, 2013
Like most films depicting historic accounts of real-life events, the bio-epic "42" carries the immediate disclaimer that it is based on a true story, leaving room for interpretive analysis and creative license. Consequently, dramatic interpretations are by their nature subject to scrutiny and debate.
While the film sticks close to the well-chronicled historic record regarding Jackie Robinson's unique place in time as the first African American to play in the major leagues, its sins are mostly of omission. Focusing tightly on the milestone season of 1947, the movie hurries through the arduous process by which Robinson and other African American players who followed him got to the big leagues. No recognition for Robinson's breakthrough given to anyone other than Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.
Of great influence in lobbying for the integration of major league baseball was the battle waged by members of the black press, among them Sam Lacy, who began his professional career as a sports writer for the Washington Tribune in 1926, moving on to become assistant national editor for the Chicago Defender and later the long-time sports editor and columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American.
Born on Oct. 23, 1903, in Mystic, Conn., Lacy was on the cutting edge of the development of black athletes in professional sports. His career as a professional journalist spanned over eight decades. He died in 2003 at the age of 99. In his 1998 memoir, Lacy recalled his and other writers' efforts to push for integration of professional sports.
"In the mid-1930s, black sportswriters kept tabs on what was going on in their own communities and in national sports involving blacks; at the same time, we tried to keep the heat on that period's racial segregation in sports," recalled Lacy, who made repeated unsuccessful attempts to meet with baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Despite Lacy's ongoing efforts through the 1930s and early 1940s, it remained evident that there was no movement toward integration coming from baseball's policy makers. This became even more apparent during the early years of World War II when blacks fought side-by-side with their white countrymen overseas but couldn't break through, even though major league rosters were depleted by the military draft.
Some of the game's best and most celebrated players were beginning or continuing tours of military duty that would keep them off the ball fields for as many as four years. By 1944 the major league terrain was so dramatically altered that the previously unimaginable occurred: a World Series pairing of the perennially lowly St. Louis Browns, pennant winner for the first time in the team's 43-year existence, with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sam Lacy continued his attempts at meeting with Landis throughout and after the 1944 season, offering his availability at any time and place, but Landis died that November. While Landis' death certainly came as good news to integrationists at first, the appointment of Landis' replacement, Senator A.B. "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky, appeared to be a serious setback to the movement. Upon hearing the news, Lacy filed his column from out of town, writing: "It appears that his choice was the most logical one to suit the bigoted major league operators, of which there is a heavy majority on hand."
However, it was under Chandler's stewardship that the breakthrough would eventually come. Surprisingly enough, in a statement issued from the commissioner's office shortly after his being named to the post, the new commissioner said, "I don't believe in barring Negroes from baseball just because they are Negroes."
After writing a letter to each of the 16 major league team owners urging that a committee to examine the desegregation issue be formed, Lacy was invited to speak to the group in Detroit on April 24, 1945.
Lacy presented his proposal, which resulted in the formation of an integration committee consisting of Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, Yankees general manager Larry MacPhail, Lacy himself, and Philadelphia magistrate Joseph H. Rainey.
For perhaps the first time, major league baseball was responding to outside pressure, including incidents such as a picket by African-Americans on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, where protesters carried placards with war time references reading: "If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?"
Branch Rickey used the occasion to make the first public disclosure that he was planning to sign an African-American player.
"No matter the thinking of baseball owners at that 1945 meeting, the tide was turning against them. Rickey's decision was the beginning of what would become both a social revolution and a boon to the big business of professional sports," Lacy later recalled.
Lacy met on at least two separate occasions with Rickey at the Dodgers' offices in Brooklyn.
"In my meetings with Rickey, I observed him going through some difficult times because of the historic change he set in motion; one had to admire him. We spoke of many things, including Rickey's thoughts about a Brown Dodgers team. Writer Wendell Smith [who does appear in the film 42] had brought Jackie Robinson to the attention of Rickey, and he was one of the numerous black players whose names came up," Lacy said.
Smith was a friend and contemporary of Lacy's, and they would later become the first two African-American members of the writer's wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
On Smith's recommendation, Rickey continued to pursue Robinson while Lacy and Smith banged away at their typewriters, hammering their message home in the form of newspaper columns and letters to the powers that be.
Meanwhile, the most effective campaign for Major League integration was staged by Robinson himself, who hit an astounding .387 during his one and only Negro league season with the Kansas City Monarchs. Late in the season Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth was in Chicago to visit Robinson, where the Monarchs were playing the American Giants at Comiskey Park. He asked if Robinson would be able to meet with Rickey in Brooklyn. The meeting that took place between Robinson, Rickey and Sukeforth on August 29, 1945 has become permanently engraved in baseball annals. During this conference, Rickey tested Robinson's mettle with a barrage of racial epithets that he would be subject to as a pioneering African-American player on the all-white teams in the all-white leagues he would be working in. After hours of this type of badgering, Robinson delivered his historic inquiry, "Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?"
To which Rickey responded, "I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
Two months later, on October 23, Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league contract with the Dodgers AAA affiliate, Montreal Royals of the International League.
Lacy covered Robinson's spring training games with the Royals in Daytona Beach, Fla., and became emotionally invested in the story he was covering.
"I felt a lump in my throat each time a ball was hit in his direction. I experienced a sort of emptiness in the bottom of my stomach whenever he took a swing in batting practice. I was constantly in fear of his muffing an easy roller. … And I uttered a silent prayer of thanks, as with closed eyes, I heard the whack of Robinson's bat against the ball," Lacy wrote for the Baltimore Afro-American.
Both Lacy and Robinson were subject to segregationist policies and nasty bouts of overt racism throughout the 1946 International League season. Lacy was with Robinson in segregated living quarters, away from the rest of the Dodgers during spring training, when members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of their rooming house.
Here in Baltimore, Robinson was hazed and heckled mercilessly by race-baiting fans at old Municipal Stadium every time the Royals came to town during the 1946 season. Robinson's wife Rachel said Baltimore fans unleashed the worst kind of name calling attacks on Jackie that she'd ever had to sit through.
In Louisville, Ky., Lacy wrote that his press pass entitled him "to a spot, smack dab against the right field wall … located at the extreme end of the covered stands … which are reserved for colored."
By the time Robinson made his big league debut with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Lacy was traveling with the team and the two were occasionally roommates when the team was on the road. That period is commemorated in a permanent exhibit on Lacy's role in the integration of baseball at the Sports Legends Museum in Baltimore.
The pair shared the collective experience of integrating baseball together, and at the time of his signing with the Dodgers, Robinson acknowledged the influence of the writers like Lacy. Speaking with Lacy's Afro-American newspaper, Robinson said, "I know that my position was obtained only through the constant pressure of my people and their press. I owe this to the colored people who helped make it possible, and I hope I shall always have their goodwill.
"I realize the responsibility — not so much to myself as to my people, and I won't let them down. I'll start swinging as soon as I get to bat."
While Lacy's exclusion from the film 42 may have been an oversight, his role in baseball's integration process had a tremendous and lasting influence on the Major League institution and the African American community.
Charlie Vascellaro is a freelance baseball and travel writer from Baltimore and author of a biography of Hank Aaron published by Greenwood Press in 2005. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.