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The dynamic duo that changed baseball journalism – The Suffolk News-Herald

The dynamic duo that changed baseball journalism

Published on Friday, July 5, 2024, 9:00 a.m.

Journalist, author and professor Wayne Dawkins tells the story of two significant African-American sports journalists and their influence on Major League Baseball.

The New York-born, Suffolk-based author took the time to discuss his next book, “Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith: The Dynamic Duo that Desegregated American Sports,” before its July 17 release. Published by Routledge as part of the Routledge Historical Americans series, the book details Lacy and Smith's work as journalists and their work in integrating the MLB and promoting respect for black baseball players. Dawkins recalled his inspiration for writing the book and being involved in Smith's 2013 induction into the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Hall of Fame.

“In fact, I was teaching journalism at Hampton University at the time and the association wanted to send a professional team to make a video about Wendell Smith and interview me and some other people. But they couldn't do it as quickly as they wanted, and two very good students put the video together…” Dawkins said. “[They] did a great job and it was just a great moment to be able to write the article about Wendell Smith and also be involved in the video.”

Dawkins says he first noticed sportswriter Lacy in 1985, but in 2021 his editor asked him to write a biography of Lacy.

“And I said, 'Sure.' But I said, 'You know, I want to make a counter offer. I think this should be a biography of Sam Lacy. And Wendell Smith,' because they were both competitors at two of the three most prominent black-owned national newspapers in America at the time,” he said. “I said, 'They were working pretty much on the same goal, which was to desegregate Major League Baseball.'”

His editor agreed, and Dawkins spent two and a half years working on the dual biography of the two influential sportswriters. As for what readers can expect from the book, Dawkins says it will detail who they are in their “origin story,” while also describing their influence in breaking down racial barriers in sports. It will also mention their role in the breakthrough of another historic black figure, who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

“…these are the men most responsible for Jackie Robinson breaking segregation. They personally selected him as the best person to make the jump to Major League Baseball,” Dawkins said. “…so both men deserve their own biographies, because as I often tell people, no serious writer can write about that period of baseball, like the '30s, '40s, '50s, without extensive footnotes. [of] which both men did. It's nice that they were in the footnotes of these books, but it was time they deserved their own story, because their own story is important too.”

In their careers as sportswriters, Lacy and Smith covered Negro Leagues athletes for the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier, respectively. They followed offseason games in Mexico and Cuba and advocated for the admission of black athletes into the major leagues. Later in their own careers, both covered MVPs Elston Howard, Hank Aaron and the late Willie Mays, although they shared a common goal. Smith died of complications from cancer on November 26, 1972, at age 58, while Lacy died on May 8, 2003, at age 99. Looking back on his research, Dawkins says both sportswriters helped write the “blueprint for civil rights policy” in the late '40s, '50s and early '60s.

“…and a blueprint in which both authors had an instinct for when to be confrontational and when to reason and negotiate with people, especially in the case of Jackie Robinson with both authors, but even more so with Wendell Smith, because [he] “I lived with Jackie Robinson,” Dawkins said. “Before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, he played for the Dodgers' best minor league team, the Montreal Royals. So he had to apply and make it to the Royals, and if he did well with the Royals, he would move up to the Dodgers, which he did. But his spring training in Florida was terrible. It was terrible. I mean, at one point he and the other black minor league player who came with him were told they had to leave one of these towns or people would come and physically assault them.”

Dawkins continued.

“Wendell Smith had to make decisions – 'Do I report on this, because if I report on all the bad things that are happening, it could ruin Robinson's chances or cause problems.' The journalist in him, sometimes he wore the PR hat, but most of the time he wore the journalist hat, but he had to know when to use nuance and sometimes to go full throttle, and Sam Lacy did that too. They made those calculations,” Dawkins said. “…I think a lot of the leaders of the civil rights movement literally adopted that, because in the civil rights crises of that time, you had to know [that] There are going to be times when you want to confront, but there are also times when you have to argue with people or negotiate with them or try to appeal to their sense of decency and fair play. So what Lacy and Smith did was more than just small stuff.”

Dawkins also spoke about the injustices Lacy and Smith have endured as black journalists, pointing out that both were denied access to the press boxes while covering the Games.

“In fact, they weren't allowed in until 1948, a year after Robinson broke segregation. I mean, it was a tricky issue and they had to deal with it in different ways. For example, in the case of Sam Lacy, there's a point where a number of white sportswriters boycotted the stadium and Lacy had to go up to the roof of the stadium to report. So the white sportswriters from the daily newspapers went there in lockstep with him to show their solidarity because after they saw Lacy show up there all the time long enough, he was accepted by that community of journalists,” says Dawkins. “In the case of Wendell Smith, he just had to sit in the stands from stadium to stadium rather than in the comfortable and accepted press box. So they had to deal with it in different ways.”

When asked what readers should take away from the book, Dawkins replies that he wants to show how “sport and society are intertwined”.

“Sport is not just about ball games and match reports, it doesn't have to stay that way forever. Especially now. It is part of our society,” said Dawkins.

To pre-order a copy of Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith: The Dynamic Duo Who Desegregated American Sports, go to amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.