SAM LACY: Separate, But Unequalled

BY George Kimball ON August 01, 2010
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When he arrived at Griffith Stadium that night in 1941, Sam Lacy had anticipated, correctly, that he would have been assigned a position alongside the other “colored reporters, but before he could locate his seat in the separate but decidedly unequal working press facilities he ran into Shirley Povich.

The Washington Post columnist seized Lacy by the arm and led him to a seat adjacent to his own in the ringside press row. “Nobody’s going to tell you to move, Povich assured him, and nobody did.

While none of the other white sportswriters voiced their objection to the presence of the Baltimore Afro-American columnist in their midst, it was evident that many of them regarded him as an interloper – although, once the bizarre events of the evening unfolded, it became clear that the reverse may have been the case. They were the interlopers, and their coverage, alongside Lacy’s, of what would rank as the most controversial ending to a heavyweight title fight until Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ears more than half a century later suggests that Sam may have been the only man at ringside who fully understood what he was watching when Buddy Baer was disqualified in his challenge to champion Joe Louis.

# # #

To say that Samuel H. Lacy saw them all understates the case. A pioneering black journalist, Lacy was born late in the reign of James J. Jeffries and five years before Jack Johnson bested Tommy Burns at Rushcutters Bay to win the heavyweight championship of the world. He covered Joe Louis’ championship run from start to finish, and when Sam died in 2003 Lennox Lewis was a month shy of his final fight.

The son of an African American father and a mother who was a Shinnecock Indian, Samuel H. Lacy was born in Mystic, Connecticut, but moved with his family to Washington D.C. as a small boy and made the nation’s capital his home for most of his life.

After graduation from Howard University, Lacy’s first job was with the Washington Tribune, a now-defunct paper serving the minority community in the District of Columbia. He briefly moved to Chicago to write for the Chicago Defender in 1940, but was shortly offered a position as a sports columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American.

The feisty Afro-American was at the time the country’s pre-eminent minority newspaper, and Lacy would remain there for the next six decades. An early crusader for the integration of baseball, he (along with colleague Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier) helped arrange the infamous 1945 Fenway Park “tryout of Negro League stars Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams, an audition which was abruptly curtailed when someone (reputedly Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey) barked out an order to “get those niggers off the field!

When Robinson signed with the Dodgers a year later, Lacy was assigned the Jackie Robinson beat, and chronicled the exploits of the baseball pioneer through his one minor league season (with Montreal of the International League in 1946) and as a National League rookie in 1947. In their travels Lacy was subjected to many of the same indignities his subject was. In spring training in Florida and in many major league cities the two had to share quarters in segregated hotels. When the Dodgers barnstormed their way through New Orleans, Lacy, barred from the press box, had to cover the game from the stadium roof – where, to his surprise, he was joined by a sympathetic gaggle of baseball writers from the major New York papers. In Robinson’s first season, 1947, Lacy was denied admission to the press box at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field.

You won’t read about these unseemly episodes in combing through the archives of Lacy’s columns. Sam regarded himself not as a “black journalist but as a journalist who happened to be black, and while he battled injustice on behalf of others throughout his career, he never wanted to make the story about himself.

While other sports dragged their feet when it came to integration, Sam’s early newspaper career paralleled the rise of several black boxing champions. He chronicled the career of Henry Armstrong, and was among the first to notice a rising young welterweight from Detroit who fought under the name Sugar Ray Robinson. But no boxer was more closely identified with Lacy than Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber (usually abbreviated to ‘Bomber’ in the pages of the Afro-American) was the first black heavyweight champion since Johnson, a figure of such enormous pride to the community forming his readership that Lacy essentially became his personal Boswell, much as he later would be Jackie Robinson’s.

And when it was announced that Louis would be defending his championship against Buddy Baer in Lacy’s hometown of Washington in May of 1941, no one was happier than Sam and his colleagues at the Afro.

# # #

Louis was a busy champion, and the Baer fight that May would represent his fifth defense of 1941. Although the appellation that would define this interlude as Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club had yet to gain widespread currency, Afro American sports editor Art Carter did make reference to “this foolish, victim-a-month campaign that is definitely lowering his prestige.

The District of Columbia had originally been carved out of territory ceded by two slave states, and in the early 1940s Washington was both geographically and philosophically considered a “southern city. In the run-up to the bout, the Afro American pondered the question of whether Louis could expect a fair shake in “here in the South, but with its large minority population, the nation’s capital also represented the champion’s natural constituency.

A Louis training session at Riverside Stadium five days before the bout drew 6,412 paying spectators, most of them black. Baer worked out in Olney, Maryland, the same day before an audience estimated at 800.

Ray Alvis, the Washingtonian who was co-promoting the event with Mike Jacobs, predicted a gate of $150,000. A week before the fight the Afro reported that Alvis estimated the advance sale at $55,000, adding that “$40,000 of that had been spent by colored fans of Louis, this indicating that more people of the title king’s race will see him in action than ever before.

Samuel Lacy had virtually grown up at Griffith Stadium. As a boy he had sat with his father (recalled by Sam as “a dyed-in-the-wool fan) in the Jim Crow-era “colored section in right field. As a teenager he worked as a ballpark vendor, and often arrived hours early for work so he could take the field and shag flies for the major leaguers who took early batting practice. He even had more than a nodding acquaintance with Clark Griffith, and shortly after returning from Chicago to work for the Afro-American had met with the owner of the hometown franchise.

Sam suggested to Griffith that the surest way to address the Senators’ attendance woes in a city with a large minority population lay in signing a few black stars. Griffith argued that such a revolutionary step would lead to the collapse of the Negro Leagues, putting hundreds of colored ballplayers out of work and, not coincidentally, depriving Griffith Stadium of its most profitable tenant -- the Homestead Grays, who in their Washington dates regularly outdrew the Senators.

Lacy found the owner’s position unpersuasive. “The Negro Leagues were a symbol of segregation, he old Sports Illustrated many years later. “They were separate but unequal.

As an adult Sam had covered Senators’ games for both the Tribune and he Afro, but not from the press box, which was off-limits to nonwhite reporters. Despite the presence of a black world champion in the main event, the 23,912 paying customers at Griffith Stadium were segregated by race on the night of the fight.

Sam’s one-man integration of press row wasn’t the only milestone accomplished that night. For the first time in boxing history an African-American judge was assigned to a heavyweight title fight. Dr. John E. Trigg, described by the Afro-American as “a colored physician, kept one scorecard. Jimmy Sullivan was the other judge; the third tally was maintained by referee Arthur Donovan. (Sixty-eight years later the record book still listed Trigg as “Dr. Treeg, which was apparently the way The Ring’s Nat Fleischer decided to spell it at the time. Informed of our findings last year, BoxRec.com historian John Sheppard updated the information and created a listing for Dr. Trigg.)

Washington would hardly have been considered a big-time boxing town, but it represented the sixth new venue in as many fights for Louis, and the Baer fight would be the only one of the Bum-of-the-Month series to take place in an outdoor arena. The International Boxing Club had ceded supervisory jurisdiction to the District of Columbia Boxing Commission, which was apparently nearly as much of a joke then as it is now. In the pages of the Afro, sports editor Carter noted that the local commission, “unaccustomed to big fights, wasn’t prepared for such a happening, and that workmen had installed the timekeeper’s bell under a ringside table, which muffled its sound and contributed significantly to the confusion surrounding the denouement of the main event.

The younger brother of former heavyweight champion Max Baer, Jacob Henry (Buddy) Baer might have lacked the notoriety of his older sibling (who had killed one opponent in the ring and was widely held responsible for the death of another), but at an imposing 6’6 ½ and 240 pounds he was even larger and stronger than Max. Just a few weeks shy of his 26th birthday, he had won 50 of his 57 career bouts, and only four of his victims had survived to hear the final bell.

“The man’s bigger than I am, a year younger than I am, and can hit, admitted Louis.

Just a month earlier Baer had successfully auditioned for his role in the title bout by knocking out Two-Ton Tony Galento in three at Washington’s Uline Arena. Less than two years earlier, Galento had given the champion all he could handle, knocking Louis down twice before succumbing in four, and on the strength of their respective performances against a common opponent, Baer seemed confident of his chances.

“I took all of Galento’s best punches without going down, he pointed out. “I’m told that four of the left hooks he hit me with in a row were as tough as the one that floored Joe. If Tony Galento could knock Louis down, I can knock him out.

Few experts seemed to put much stock in Baer’s boasts, but in the first round he sent a gasp through the crowd when he knocked Louis down and nearly out of the ring with what was described as “a corking good left hook. The punch knocked Louis through the ropes, and only an acrobatic landing prevented his head from thudding off the canvas.

Dazed, Louis came to rest perched “no more than two inches from the edge of the ring apron, and very nearly tumbled over the edge and into the first row of sportswriters.

In a 1923 title fight at the Polo Grounds, Luis Ángel Firpo had knocked Jack Dempsey into the press section. On that occasion, several newspapermen, including Walter Winchell, Hype Igoe, and Paul Gallico, had assisted the Manassa Mauler by helping him climb back into the ring in time to beat the count, but Art Carter seemed to doubt that the Washington scribes would have done the same for Louis.

“If he had fallen into the press row, I hesitate to think what may have happened with a very hostile press in position to delay his return to the ring, wrote Carter.

It was the first time in his career Louis had ever been knocked out of the ring, and the episode apparently startled both combatants. Once Joe got back in the ring, he and Baer had both headed toward their respective corners, only to have Donovan order them to resume hostilities. There were still almost 20 seconds left in the first.

None the worse for wear, Louis resumed his two-fisted attack and handily won each of the next three rounds. He was similarly dominating the action in the fifth until, at close quarters, Baer unloaded an uppercut that ripped open a cut above Louis’ eye.

Louis had been cut just once before, and that had been the result of a head-butt from Red Burman. This was the first time in 48 fights he had been cut by a punch.

Arthur Donovan was the pre-eminent referee of his day and almost as familiar to Louis as the champion’s own cornermen. He had been the third man in the ring for nine of the Brown Bomber’s title fights, as well as four others in which Louis, on his way up the ladder, had faced former world champions. (Included among these latter had been Joe’s fourth-round KO of Max Baer in 1935.)

Donovan’s performance in the Washington fight was an aberration – a case of a good referee having a bad night – unlikely to appear on any highlight films of his officiating career.

After his early display of bravado, Baer was on the wane. Inspired by the sight of his own blood, Louis picked up the pace, and Baer was visibly staggered by the champion’s onslaught late in the fifth.

Louis floored the giant challenger with a hard right in the sixth. Baer made it to his feet by the count of five after the first knockdown, but probably should have been counted out the second time Louis put him down. Timekeeper Charley Reynolds actually did get to ‘ten’ with Baer still on the canvas, but Donovan had misheard Reynolds’ count and only reached ‘nine’ before Buddy struggled to his feet.

Under similar circumstances in Lewiston, Maine, 24 years later, Sonny Liston was ruled to have been knocked out by Muhammad Ali even though referee Joe Walcott had missed the timekeeper’s count, but on this occasion the fight continued, with just seconds remaining in the round.

Intent on finishing his foe and with the crowd now at fever pitch, Louis raced at Baer, fists flying. Louis feinted with a left and then landed a right squarely to the jaw. Neither fighter had heard the bell end the round, and neither did Donovan realize it had sounded until Baer was already writhing on the canvas.

Baer did eventually make it to his feet and fairly stumbled to his corner. Manager Ancil Hoffman devoted most of the intervening one-minute rest period to berating Donovan, demanding that the referee disqualify Louis for the late punch.

The extent of Baer’s recovery during the one-minute rest period we will never know, because when the bell rang Hoffman all but sat on his fighter to ensure that he didn’t leave his stool. Ray Arcel and Izzy Klein, the seconds in Baer’s corner, also remained on the ring apron, refusing to descend the stairs.

When the Baer entourage ignored several entreaties and refused to vacate the ring, Donovan disqualified the challenger.

The pro-Louis segment of the crowd was pleased by the result, if not by the precipitate conclusion, of the bout, but Hoffman’s histrionics apparently struck a chord among a preponderance of ringside reporters, many of whom wrote the next day that Louis, and not Baer, should have been disqualified. Of course, most of these sportswriters were covering their first championship fight. Sam Lacy, on the other hand, had covered plenty of them, and he understood exactly what he had seen.

Yes, the final blow had been struck after the round was over, but Donovan hadn’t heard the bell and neither had either fighter. Even once this had been established, the referee maintained that Louis’s punch had been delivered “at the bell, though most onlookers thought it came a few seconds later.

Once rendered, the referee’s ruling was, like a called third strike, irreversible.

“I made my decision and I am standing by it, said Donovan. “There is no appeal from my decisions.

Hoffman knew this as well as anyone. Even had the referee acknowledged the champion’s transgression, it was so obviously unintentional that he might have taken the round from Louis, but he certainly wouldn’t have disqualified him.

Hoffman also knew that his fighter had been down three times in the past three minutes and was unlikely to survive another minute of fighting, let alone another round. In appearing to stand on principle, what he was actually doing was laying the groundwork for a rematch and another payday for himself and Buddy Baer.

In this respect Hoffman’s actions are comparable to, say, the attorney William Kunstler intentionally getting himself physically carried out of the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Ancil, as far as we know) at the Trial of the Chicago Seven. Kunstler knew he couldn’t win in court that day, and he knew perfectly well he would be locked up and jailed for contempt. But he also knew that by portraying himself as the aggrieved party he would build a groundswell of public support, and hoped to establish a case for a new trial before a more hospitable judge.

So while the other sportswriters were falling for Ancil Hoffman’s con job, Sam Lacy immediately recognized it for what it was. But, far from angered, Lacy actually applauded Hoffman for what he recognized as a brilliant tactic on behalf of his client.

Wrote an admiring Lacy in his “Looking ‘Em Over column. “Hoffman, hardly known to this corner prior to that time, immediately captured its profound respect… That is the kind of manipulation that marks a real strategist and lifts a fight manager far above the rank and file of his contemporaries.

While many white sportswriters viewed Louis’ late punch as an act of moral turpitude, Sam recognized it for what it was – an unintentional transgression that “nevertheless, should have been punished.

“Loss of the round was probably the most severe penalty that could be administered under the conditions, however, wrote Lacy, “and there shouldn’t be a moment’s entertainment of the claims that (Louis) should be shorn of his crown.

Lacy’s opinion was seconded by Dr. Trigg, who told the Afro-American, “Though I don’t think he did it deliberately, Louis’s final right-hand smash to Buddy Baer’s jaw was in my opinion a foul. Louis threw that blow about three seconds after I had heard the bell ring. Because of the terrific din set up by the crowd and the fact that the bell was placed in such a position that it might not be heard over the roar of the crowd, it can be safely said that Joe probably didn’t hear it.

“In keeping with the rules, that sixth round should have been taken from Louis and awarded to Baer and the fight should have continued, if – which I doubt – Baer had been able to come out for the seventh.

Disqualification in a heavyweight championship fight is rare. The most obvious example came when referee Mills Lane disqualified Tyson after he deliberately bit Holyfield in the ear – twice – in their second fight in 1997. (Lane, a no-nonsense former prosecutor and judge, also DQ’d Henry Akinwande, after repeated warnings, for “excessive holding in a fight against Lennox Lewis.) Some of the white ringside press apparently considered Louis’ late punch the 1941 equivalent of the “Bite Fight, but Sam Lacy knew better.

But, wrote Lacy in his whimsical analysis of Ancil Hoffman’s actions provoking the DQ, “by straddling Buddy and creating a general disturbance, Hoffman accomplished more in the way of winning public sentiment for a return go and rousing a press which up until this time had been earmarked ‘recalcitrant’ by the promoters than he and his whole stable of fighters could have done in a year.

In this analysis Lacy was not only accurate but downright prescient. Thanks to his manager, Buddy Baer did indeed get a return bout. He and Louis met at Madison Square Garden the following January. The champion’s 75 year-old trainer Jack Blackburn, by then badly ailing and crippled by arthritis, nearly withdrew from the Lewis corner for Baer II, voicing concern whether he could negotiate the steps for fifteen rounds. Louis told him if he could make it up to the ring once, he wouldn’t have to do it again.

“That’s a promise, Chappie reminded him, and Joe made good on it.

After Louis knocked him down three times in the first round to score a quick TKO, Baer famously said, “The only way I could have beaten Louis that night was with a baseball bat.

Blackburn passed away that April, and Louis shortly found himself in the Army.

The payday from the rematch was Buddy’s last as a boxer. The attack on Pearl Harbor had occurred a month before the rematch. Buddy and Max both joined the Armed Forces, and neither ever fought again. After World War II Buddy Baer returned to California and embarked on an acting career that saw him appear in numerous movie and television roles.

Lacy continued to write his column for the Afro-American well into this century. After he suffered a stroke, his son drove him to the newspaper’s offices, and once his hands became too crippled by arthritis to type, he wrote his column in longhand. Sam’s column appeared three times a week until his death, at 99, in May of 2003. He was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. And when the Boxing Writers Association of America established the A.J. Liebling Award in 1995, Samuel H. Lacy and Shirley Povich were included in the first group of recipients.

Somehow, though, Lacy’s name has not come up for inclusion in the ‘observers’ section of the International Boxing Hall of Fame at Canastota – an oversight that should, in our opinion, be addressed, and at the earliest possible moment.

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