|Swinging through time with Sam|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
There's a vicious rumor going around that Sam Lacy, columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American weekly newspaper, is dead.
They say he died last week, 99 years young, and missed Raffy Palmeiro hitting his 500th home run on Sunday, Mother's Day.
Impossible. I know Sam Lacy. He can't die. He's one of the Immortals. Sam was 75 years old back when I was a baby on the baseball beat, a lifetime ago, and first heard of him. Heard stories of how he had lobbied with the likes of Clark Griffith back in the 1930s, as a young "colored scribe" with what they called cheek back then, working at an equally colorful Washington Tribune. Sam had boldly jockeyed with Griffith over the plausibility of a black man so much as playing in the big leagues.
Sam knew. Sam had seen Rube Foster, Turkey Stearns. He knew there was no real mystery to the game, so why try to act like there is? Of any male population, a certain infinitesimal percentage could become big leaguers. Period. Sam Lacy was a baseball writer. Sam wrote all sports, knew and talked to other Immortals, like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, watched them perform, but at the end of the day -- a very long day, in Sam's case -- his greatest passion was big-league baseball, and his baby was Jackie Robinson. Sam not only covered Jack Roosevelt Robinson in the big leagues, stayed with sometimes, Sam helped get him there.
Like I say, I was young on the beat when Sam was 75 years old. And every year, as I got older, Sam always stayed the same. He always had a minute for a younger scribe who wasn't too full of himself to realize that just because he'd seen a big-league game, it didn't mean he'd seen everything there was to know about it.
Sam can't die. Not really. He's seen too much. Everything he's seen was passed through everybody he touched. Like, well, me.
People talk about seeing all the Super Bowls, like that's a big deal, which it is, I guess. The Super Bowl started back in 1966. Sam was 63 then. As a kid, when Babe Ruth was a bonus baby with the Red Sox, Sam snuck into Griffith Stadium, in the Shaw section of D.C. Sam ran errands for the Senators, fetched cigarettes for that Chick guy, later one of the Chicago White Sox who became "Black Sox."
Sam never liked that world "black." You can see why.
Sam preferred "colored" and "Negro." That's how Sam came up. Everybody, at least everybody black, claims some Native American blood. Sam had it. Loads of it. He plainly looked like he had a little Osceola or Geronimo in him. Acted like it too, at times. But make no mistake, Sam knew and liked what he was, all that he was. He knew the score, too. Don't think he didn't. Sam saw Big Train throw nothing but fastballs when he was a young man, all gas; therefore, when Sam first saw Satchel, or Feller, or then Roger Clemens and Doc Gooden, he had some perspective, and didn't go completely ga-ga, like some of the rest of us did. Sam had covered the ungodly Homestead Grays, saw Josh Gibson hit, and therefore knew things about the physics of a baseball none of us know now. Sam hated the DH. A ballplayer played. So Sam knew of the little things between the lines long before the rest of us did.
For example, as a boy, Sam saw somebody spit on his father for waving his "I Saw Walter Johnson Pitch" pennant in the annual preseason Senators parade through D.C. His dad was the biggest Senators fan in the world, but he was also something else, a thing that the spitter called a "nigger." Sam's dad was a heartbroken Senators fan after that. Why do you think Sam became a baseball writer in the first place? Why do you think he lobbied Griffith, and championed Jackie Robinson? It was because of his old man.
Sam was D.C. through and through. When I moved there, I thought I needed permission, not from Congress, Marion Barry or the Washington Post, but from Sam. So I moved not far away from him. He made me feel at home. Every day, maybe for more years than you've been alive, Sam would don his little straw hat, get in his car and grab the steering wheel with both hands and tool down Route 1 or maybe I-95 ... after they built I-95 in the '50s, that is. Sam's been making that drive since the end of the war -- the Big One, I'm talking about -- down to his office on the narrow streets of Baltimore, from where Sam saw the world and the worm turn.
Sam is perspective. When the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Sam into its writers' wing last year, the Hall of Fame should've been more honored about it than Sam was. Who's been around longer?
I say all that to say that Sam's not dead. Sam can't die. First of all, his son is picking up the column right where Sam left off. A Lacy will still write sports for the Baltimore Afro-American weekly.
Secondly, Sam lives through everybody he touched, and reminded what it was like to be human, and aging, but still writing, fighting, and living; everybody who ever talked baseball with him.
That's where Raffy Palmeiro comes in.
I don't know the last time Sam visited Camden Yards. I never saw him there. Sam was at the opening and the closing of Memorial Stadium. The new park had the same old game.
He'd stopped typing up his column 20-odd years ago, due to arthritis that crumpled his hands. You'd never hear that from Sam, but it happened. He made his 4:30 a.m. drive every morning, hat in place, both crumpled hands on the steering wheel, from D.C. to Baltimore, then wrote up his column longhand. Sam's not dead. Sam can't die. I can hear him now:
"Nice swing," he said.
Sam was talking about Raffy Palmeiro.
See, I had business at Camden Yards, or at least I did back six or seven years ago. So, of course I called Sam for perspective. We talked about Cal Jr., Robby, Bordie, Moose and E.D., all the old crew, from the now-olden days when the Orioles played actual big-league baseball at a high level. Sam talked about Frank, and Boog and Brooksie, and Earl smoking like a chimney. Palmeiro was at bat at the time, on the tube. Sam just said, "Nice swing."
This came from Sam. It was like coming from the book of Genesis.
"Yeah, it is kinda sweet, ain't it?" I said.
"Beautiful," said Sam. "They need to keep him."
Now, everybody from Don Zimmer to Bobby Valentine to every scout in the game worth his salt has since followed Sam's suit, and said what a lovely swing Raffy Palmeiro has, what a beautiful and effortless arc his bat makes, how it may be the most beautiful swing in baseball, right up there with Ted Williams', a swing that propelled Raffy's 500th home run out of the Ballpark in Arlington on Sunday. People who are not Sam doubt Raffy's credentials for the Hall of Fame simply because he looked so effortless doing it.
I mean, what else is there to doubt?
But Sam knew right away. I found out later, the hard way, by going, day after day, and watching the total cumulative effect. Like Sam did it. Yeah, I watched Raffy pound balls into the upper tank at Yankee Stadium in the evening gloaming to help take the O's to the playoffs. I've seen the right-handers give him nothing. I've seen him still hit balls that would shatter seats in the upper tank at old Tiger Stadium. I've seen him hit cleanup in three different decades. People say he played in a bad era for pitching. You don't hit 500 home runs and play in one era. Can't do it. Nobody, not even Ruth, hits 500 home runs in their first 10 years in the Show. Right, Sam?
I saw Raffy get some of those 2,500-plus hits (he'll end up with far more than 3,000), some of those 1,600-plus RBI (he may end up with 2,000). So it's not just about the 500 home runs. It's about the every day, the seemingly effortless way Palmeiro amassed them. It would fool the naked eye. The naked untrained eye. Sam made sure I knew. "Beautiful ... they need to keep him."
They did, for a while. Coincidentally, I guess, that was the last time the Baltimore Orioles were any good, when they had Raffy Palmeiro hitting cleanup.
Sam Lacy wouldn't hesitate to tell you what a beautiful ballplayer looked like, and he didn't mean color. Sam knew they came in all colors. And -- listen now -- Sam knew they would always come, always, and in all colors, sizes, shapes and continental origins.
That's one of the great beauties of the game.
Raffy Palmeiro isn't a big guy, which can throw you off in your evaluations. Neither was Sam. When you're comparing Raffy to AL slugging first basemen like McGriff, Frank Thomas or Jason Giambi, notice how much smaller he is. Smaller in stature and in public notice. Smaller in perception, not smaller in effect. For at the end of the day, Raffy Palmeiro will outproduce them all.
Sam's sort of like that. If a Grantland Rice was like a Babe Ruth, then a Sam Lacy was like a Henry Aaron. Steady. Every day. Maybe it's not a matter of who was best at their top end. Maybe it's total cumulative effect of their game. Hank Aaron hit three home runs in a game only once. The rest still add up to 755. Raffy Palmeiro never hit 50 in a season. But he hit 500, and counting.
As long as they play baseball, Sam Lacy can't die. He's 99 years young right now. He's in his stingy-brim hat, both gnarled hands on the steering weel, tooling up I-95 or Route 1 to the office of the Baltimore Afro-American weekly newspaper, even as we speak.
Nice swing, Sam. Beautiful.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."