Monday, April 22, 2013

How Sam Lacy helped integrate Major League Baseball

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
By Charlie Vascellaro
Baltimore Sun
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

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Long gone, Ebbets Field continues to live on in lore

Ebbets Field is set to spring back to life in the upcoming
Jackie Robinson biopic "42." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
NEW YORK -- Ron Schweiger, the official historian of Brooklyn with a rabbinical demeanor, had never met Bob McGee when a reporter called to invite them both to lunch.

Schweiger and McGee are both Brooklynites. Schweiger never left, but McGee, an urbane spokesman for a local utility company who recites poetry at the table then apologizes for doing so, lives in suburban Westchester County and works in Manhattan.

They were already kindred spirits, through a mutual childhood love and their time at Brooklyn College. Once a newspaper man, McGee moonlights as an author. He wrote a canonical history of Ebbets Field, the ballpark of his childhood, and the work cites Schweiger. Still, they remained strangers until March. In near caricature, Schweiger chose a diner along Flatbush Avenue for gab.

"April 12, it comes out," said Schweiger, who has pristine replicas of the original blueprints of Ebbets Field in his memorabilia-filled home. "The coming attractions, I can't believe -- did you see?"

"They make Ebbets Field look like Ebbets Field," McGee said. "I don't know how they did it. It must have been computer-generated. It had to be, how did they do it?"

"I mean, when I saw this, when the actor who's playing Jackie," Schweiger went on, "he's walking up the ramp, and he gets to the top -- there's Ebbets Field. There's the inside of the ballpark.'"

"That's the way Ebbets field looked," McGee said. "Exactly the same."

They're talking about "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic that opens in theaters on Friday. Most anyone for whom Ebbets Field was a cathedral will have similar feelings -- deity of talk Larry King, for one. The stadium in the movie was indeed computer-generated, using a stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., as the backdrop.

"I was at [Jackie] Robinson's first game," King said. "So when they showed that scene of that Opening Day, I was up in the bleachers for 50 cents. And I lived at Ebbets Field in my childhood."

Hosting a show on Ora TV now after leaving CNN, King sat in Sandy Koufax's suite at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day last week. Famously, King and Koufax went to the same high school in Brooklyn, as did Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Fifty-one years after the opening of Dodger Stadium, King and Koufax engaged in a similar diner prattle of nostalgia. Their conversations, without fail, always settle on home.

"Always," King said. "Back toward Brooklyn, back toward growing up. Back toward what was."

One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ebbets Field hosted its first regular-season baseball game. Philadelphia downed the Brooklyn team, then better known as the "Superbas," 1-0, in front of a crowd of about 10,000.

The glory of the 1940s and '50s was still a long ways away. Cartoonist Willard Mullin didn't create the famous Brooklyn Bum cartoon character, the unofficial avatar of a self-contained city, until 1937.

Had Ebbets Field somehow stood, its centennial would have been sandwiched between Fenway Park's in 2012 and Wrigley Field's in 2014.

It's not without irony that Dodger Stadium, a magnificent park in its own right, received a $100 million facelift this winter.

"This is the second chance that Ebbets Field never had," said Mark Langill, the Dodgers' official historian. "Normally, you would not have a facility this old undergo a renovation."

More than most years, reminders of Ebbets can be found all around of late: The movie, for one. In addition, Citi Field, Wilpon's jewel and the home of the Mets, was created in Ebbets' likeness. It's a fine coincidence that the All-Star Game will be hosted there in the year of the centennial.

And just a few months ago, in December, a flagpole from Ebbets was positioned in front of the Nets' new arena, Barclays Center. Barclays Center was built exactly on the site that Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers owner who moved the team to Los Angeles in 1958, sought for a new ballpark in Brooklyn.

* * * * *

"My first memory of Ebbets Field was in high school," said Koufax, who debuted in 1955, giving him three years at Ebbets. "They used to take us to one game a year, it would start at 11 in the morning. You'd see the game, then get on the subway and go home. Of course, I grew up in Brooklyn, so it was special for me to play in the stadium where I watched [Gil] Hodges and [Duke] Snider and Jackie and Pee Wee [Reese] and Newk [Don Newcombe]. Those were guys I saw playing when I was a kid."

Ebbets cost $750,000 to construct, and the lots it was built on were bought up in secret by Charles Ebbets, the team's owner, to keep prices down. Architect Clarence Van Buskirk designed the park, the blueprints of which are now stored in New York City's municipal archives in Manhattan.

There was quite a to-do regarding those blueprints just last year. A Brooklyn man took it upon himself to find them in 1992. The blueprints went on display with Schweiger's help in 2012, and city lawyers immediately came calling for them. Those same blueprints helped in the re-creation of Ebbets in "42."

In its later years, the ballpark's capacity sat in the low-30,000 range. The Italian-marble-adorned rotunda at the home-plate entrance was its hallmark. A 56-foot-wide entrance led to more than a dozen ticket windows.

The 20-foot-high wall in right field was bent, creating oddities in play. At first pitcher friendly, Ebbets became a bandbox with time and changing dimensions. The right-field line was always about 300 feet from home plate, and foul territory was long a pipe dream.

"I had my best days at Ebbets Field, even though it was not a pitcher's park, but in a sense it was for the Dodgers' pitchers," said Carl Erskine, who threw two no-hitters at Ebbets Field, one in 1952, the other in '56. "It was a nightmare for a visiting pitcher sometimes."

The stadium was built without a press box. Television has enriched everything about sports, it all began in Flatbush. There was a Dodgers football team, too, and it played the Eagles in the first televised pro football game in 1939. That was a couple of months after the Dodgers and Reds played the first televised baseball game, also at Ebbets.

Fenway and Wrigley aren't Ebbets' only contemporaries. There was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Tiger Stadium, originally called Navin Field, in Detroit.

But it seems that Ebbets Field has taken on an afterlife that no other park has, and few teams embrace a team's history from a prior city the way the Dodgers of Los Angeles do.

"It's because of the brand of the Dodgers," Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. "It's Jackie Robinson, it's Branch Rickey, it's Vin Scully, it's Sandy Koufax, it's [Tommy] Lasorda, all of whom who go back to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field. You can't name people like that for any place else other than Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. And Yankee Stadium has been rebuilt, but they took pains to make it feel like the old Yankee Stadium."

The transforming Brooklyn neighborhood, the players, Robinson's role in breaking the color barrier, the rivalries with the Giants and Yankees -- all are inexorably linked to the stadium's lore. All, too, have been chronicled in great length.

The Polo Grounds, the home of the Giants before they moved to San Francisco, could be funereal, although the franchise was quite successful. Yankee Stadium was stuffy.

"At Ebbets Field, you were aware," said Scully, the legendary broadcaster who has been calling Dodgers games since 1950. "Because every day you'd see the same people in the box seats. They'd wave up, they'd say hello. Hilda Chester, who once hollered at me that she loved me, which embarrassed me and I lowered my head, and she said, 'Look at me when I'm talking to you.' So that's as intimate as Ebbets Field was. You'd never get anything like that [elsewhere]."'

"When you played the Giants at Ebbets Field, this was your manhood on the line," Erskine said. "Against the Giants? I mean, come on. We faced them 22 times a year in those days; it was all in New York, so the rivalry was tremendous."
* * * * *

Then, just like that, the rivalries and two of New York's three teams were transplanted. Blame O'Malley for not selling the team, blame New York urban planner Robert Moses for not permitting O'Malley to develop the Brooklyn site he wanted. To this day, there is no universal consensus that Moses deserves most of the blame for the Dodgers' departure, but that seems to be the most popular opinion.

"Everything had to go just so," said Langill. "And this is in like a 12-to-15-month span, when suddenly they go from being in the World Series against the Yankees, taking it to Game 7, to suddenly 51 weeks later announcing that they're moving. For somebody that since 1946 wanted to make it work on the East Coast, I think [O'Malley] did make a good-faith effort for 10 years."

McGee acknowledges that it may be difficult for him to view the move through the prism of any perspective but that of a New Yorker, but he's also done extensive research on the move. He disagrees.

"The revisionists who would seek to blame Robert Moses and ignore O'Malley's opportunism gloss over the fact that [Phillies owner Bob] Carpenter in Philadelphia began advancing the argument for a new stadium in Philadelphia in 1953, around the same time O'Malley ramped up his efforts in earnest for one in Brooklyn, and Mr. Carpenter waited until 1970 for a civic solution to evolve in Philadelphia called Veterans Stadium," McGee said. "O'Malley was playing New York off against a best offer. Those who say O'Malley did all he could to keep the team in Brooklyn conveniently overlook one fact, one thing that he never did: He never offered the team for sale."

In the context of today, two questions concerning Ebbets Field stand out. Why were Fenway and Wrigley able to survive while Ebbets did not? And could Ebbets Field have still been serviceable? The Red Sox and Cubs, after all, have dealt with the same issues regarding parking and public transportation that became the crux of the Dodgers' departure.

More than once, Fenway almost fell. Before the current ownership took over not much more than a decade ago, there was talk of a new park. But even before that, in the 1960s, Tom Yawkey was unhappy with the Fens.

"Going back to the '60s when the Red Sox were really doing poorly and all these new ballparks were being built around baseball, Tom Yawkey was very discouraged for a couple of reasons," Red Sox team historian Dick Bresciani said. "He was trying to rebuild a team, but he thought that he wasn't getting proper support from the state, because they had put in the Massachusetts Turnpike about 10 years previously, and he wanted an exit [directly to Fenway]. He was quoted a couple of times in the paper, maybe he might have to leave Boston, because he couldn't keep competing with teams that were increasing their seating up into the 60,000s and we were only 33,000-something total at that time.

"What changed all of his thinking was the miracle pennant of '67. And the fact that the attendance jumped tremendously."

The Red Sox were helped, too, by the fact that the Braves had left Boston in 1953, five years before the Dodgers went to Los Angeles. Leaving Boston without a Major League franchise would not have been viable.

"That really was sort of the test balloon for those owners to say, 'Hey, they went from struggling in Boston to successful in Milwaukee,'" Langill said. "The St. Louis Browns go to Baltimore, and pretty soon the Athletics are looking to leave Philadelphia, but that's all because of the Braves."

Winning wasn't a problem for the Dodgers at the time of their move. One of the reasons they live on in myth is because they were torn out of the borough at the height of their success.

But naturally, a winning team -- a team that should draw immediately -- is most appealing to cities with Major League aspirations. Winning crystallized the memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it helped hurry them away.

"The key difference is that the Dodgers were a successful club on the field and at the box office, while the Red Sox and Cubs were not," MLB's official historian John Thorn said. "The limited capacity and access of both Fenway and Wrigley cannot be said to have had much of a bottom-line impact, for decades at a time. Once the woeful Boston Braves franchise saw their attendance multiply six, seven times in Milwaukee, all club owners paid attention."

As for the issues of traffic and public transportation -- that might be where the tragedy of Ebbets is most clear.

Ebbets' spirit and essence can be seen everywhere today, in all the recently-built city-center stadiums tucked into cozy harbors or neighborhoods, from Baltimore to San Diego. Ebbets, like Fenway and Wrigley, is a model that teams have returned to. If the park could have held on until, say, 1990 ...

"These older ballparks [were] not forced by a multitude of code and marketing initiatives that spread us all out and put in cross aisles for vendors and separated every seat category," said Janet Marie Smith, a lead figure in the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore, as well as the revitalization of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium. "And inches which turn into feet which turn into complete other levels, [and] reduces the intimacy. And at the end of the day, it is the intimacy that really adds energy to the parks in a way that you almost never find in the new parks, because they're simply more spread out."

In terms of its own construction and the infrastructure, Ebbets physically should have been able to make it as well, given the types of renovations going on at Fenway and Wrigley -- wranglings of ownership aside.

"I can only speculate based on what I know from photographs and ratings, but it seems to me that it didn't have any challenges that were any more severe than Wrigley or Fenway," Smith said. "And I think in many respects, one of the most frustrating things about Ebbets for the Dodgers was their belief that the forms of transportation in America were changing so rapidly. The inability to come to Ebbets Field via car was as much as what drove their decision to move as anything else."

* * * * *

Schweiger and McGee took a trip to the site of Ebbets after lunch, where apartment towers now stand. Schweiger pantomimed catching a fly ball beyond the right-field fence, where a small parking lot currently sits. The ironic placards of "No Ball Playing" in the courtyard are well known, and a large sign that says "Ebbets Field Apartments" hints at what used to be -- but that's all.

The neighborhood has radically changed. A shift was under way even when the Dodgers were leaving, courtesy of World War II's conclusion and the Moses-supported growth of the suburbs. Maybe if the team had stayed, the neighborhood could have been built around it. Maybe. But who would have played there? The Mets?

Keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn, after all, would have meant a new ballpark either way, barring O'Malley selling.

"I don't picture it today, it belongs to the era it was in," Erskine said. "It would be out of place today."

Scully, whose word on the Dodgers should always be final, harkened back to another palace of his childhood.

"Nothing is forever," Scully said. "I was pretty much raised in Washington Heights [in Manhattan]. And I lived on about 180th Street and Cabrini Boulevard. Well, about five or six blocks from where I lived, believe it or not, there was a magnificent castle. It was a castle made of pure white Carrara marble. And it was built and owned by a gentleman who was a doctor. His name was Paterno. Now this castle today would look like something out of Disneyland. And there was a big, iron, grated fence around the property, and as little kids, we'd go up there to just look at it from afar. And they had some Doberman Pinschers, I think they were patrolling the grounds. So you'd have one kid go far up the line and rattle the fence, and the dog would go up there, and then we could kind of look in and see. Among other things, I remember vividly seeing a suit of armor in the entry and I could see a polar bear rug on the floor.

"And this is in New York, in Washington Heights, the most unbelievable thing you ever saw! Dr. Paterno passed on. I believe he had one or two sisters, and they did not want the castle, so they sold it to some big real estate company. And if you went up to that neighborhood, up past 181st Street, on Cabrini Boulevard, you'd see -- and I'm trying to count in my memory -- but there's probably five or six multistory apartment houses looking out. But the name of that whole complex is Castle Village.

"I'm not sure how many people who live there know that there was actually the most magnificent castle you ever saw. But my point was there wasn't any time or any reason for the castle to remain in this modern day. And there really wasn't any time for Ebbets Field to remain once everybody left."
Evan Drellich is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.