The Journalist Who Helped Jackie Robinson Break the Color Bar

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon.

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My years dealing with sports reporters in Chicago while working at Northwestern University brought me into contact with some who today are minor legends among longtime readers. But none had a greater impact on the games-- and on society-at-large-- than one whom few remember today: Wendell Smith of the now defunct Chicago Today.

Some may vaguely remember Smith's byline. But they, like I, probably needed the reminder of Wendell and his unsung efforts that were spotlighted by the Ken Burns historical series on baseball over National Public TV. I saw that series when it aired a second time in mid-May.

As a baseball buff, I savored every minute of the three two-hour installments. There were many highlights, such as the Babe supposedly predicting his home run off Charley Root of the Cubs in a World Series game at Wrigley Field, and the most exciting moment the game ever has known: BobbyThomson's 9th inning home run to give the Giants the pennant playoff series over the Dodgers in 1951.

But from the vantage point of time, Smith's role in the most important event in the game's history-- Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947-- gave him a meaning that transcends any achievement of the Babe. It was a coincidence that during the time the Burns series was aired again, Smith's colleague in the Robinson effort, Sam Lacy, died at 99. USA Today gave Lacy and his meaning to the game a full column, even though few readers knew of him.

Education enabled both Smith and Lacy to get a foot in the door in journalism which-- in their early days-- was as lily white as most other areas of professional life. Smith studied at Virginia State College, and went to work after graduation at the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. Two years later, Lacy, got his degree from Howard University.

Both operated in the shadows of the game, unjustly, because of their color. Early in his career, Lacy was barred from many baseball and football press boxes because of rules against Negros. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' general manager who went against the bigots in the game to open the doors for Robinson, learned that Lacy was barred from using the press box at Dodgers spring training games in the South in Jackie's debut year. He arranged for Lacy to report on the games from the best vantage point of all: the Dodgers bench.

Both Smith and Lacy became close to Robinson, who was aware of how they had lobbied in the Negro press for blacks to be allowed into the Big Leagues. At different times, each roomed with Jackie on the road in his first year in the Majors, when he had to deal with the rancour of some fans who let their bigotry spoil their interest in the game.

As he pioneered the gradual move of blacks into newsrooms and press boxes, Smith became accustomed to being the target of race-based prejudice like that Jackie had to deal with on the diamond. The transition came when he left the black-oriented Courier in Pittsburgh with a move to Chicago. There I saw him gain the respect-- sometimes grudging-- of such veteran sportswriting figures as Jerry Liska of the Associated Press, Ed Prell of the Tribune, Bill Jauss of the Daily News, and Bob Pille of the Sun-Times.

Over the years, I've seen a steady advancement in opportunities for blacks in news coverage. In sports, they are symbolized for me by Irv Cross, co-captain of the Northwestern football team (1959), when I worked there. He was the first African-American to get a regular sports assignment on network TV when he became the on-the-air partner of Brent Musburger on CBS-TV. The way for Irv was paved by Smith and Lacy.

When I got to know Smith casually in Chicago sports 40 years ago, I missed a golden opportunity to hear from him personally of the major role he played in the biggest, most important change the game has known. Race still was a sensitive subject. No one discussed it, and I was unaware of Smith's battle against it. Now, decades later, it is late-- but not too late-- to give recognition to men with courage, like Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, who helped make possible the greatness of baseball as we know it today.

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Ephraim Schulman - 6/5/2003

June 5, 2003
Did Lester Rodney of the Daily Worker have anything to do with breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball?