The dynamic duo that changed baseball journalism

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, July 10, 2024

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Journalist, Author and Professor Wayne Dawkins shares the history of two key African-American sports journalists and the impact they had on Major League Baseball.

The New York-born Suffolk resident took time to discuss his upcoming book, “Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith: The Dynamic Duo that Desegregated American Sports,” ahead of its July 17 release. Published by Routledge as part of its “Routledge Historical Americans” series, the book details Lacy and Smith’s work as journalists and their work in both integrating MLB and bringing respect to black baseball players. On being inspired to write the book, Dawkins reflected on being a part of Smith’s induction into the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Hall of Fame in 2013.

“In fact, at the time, I was teaching journalism at Hampton University and because the association wanted to send a professional crew to do a video about Wendell Smith and interview me and some other people, but they were not able to do it as soon as they wanted, and two very good students put the video together…,” Dawkins said. “[They] did an excellent job and that was just a great moment being able to write the piece about Wendell Smith and also take part in the video.”

For Lacy, Dawkins says the sportswriter first came to his attention in 1985, but in 2021, his editor asked him to write a biography on Lacy.

“And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ But I said, ‘You know, I want to make a counteroffer. I think this should be a biography of Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith’ because both men, they were competitors on two of the three most prominent, nationally distributed black-owned papers in America at that time,” he recounted. “I said ‘They were working pretty much on the same purpose, to desegregate Major League Baseball.’”

His editor agreed, which set Dawkins off to write the dual biography of the two influential sports journalists for two and a half years. On what readers can expect from the book, Dawkins says that it will detail who they are in their “origin story,” while also detailing their influence in breaking down racial barriers in sports, noting their role in another historical black figure’s breakthrough in joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 15, 1947.

“…these are the men most responsible for Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. They personally vetted him as the best person to make that leap into Major League Baseball,” Dawkins said. “…So both men deserve their own biography because, as I often tell people, anyone writing about that period in baseball, like the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, any serious writer of that period cannot write it without having extensive footnotes, [of] what both men were doing. It’s nice that they were in the footnotes of these books, but it was time that they deserve their own story because their own story is important too.”

In their sportswriting careers, Lacy and Smith both reported for the Baltimore Afro-American and Pittsburgh Courier, respectively, covering athletes in the Negro Leagues, which saw them follow off-season games in Mexico and Cuba while helping push for the inclusion of black major league athletes. Later in their own careers, but sharing a common goal, both would report on MVPs Elston Howard, Hank Aaron and the late Willie Mays. Smith died after battling cancer on Nov. 26, 1972, at age 58, while Lacy died on May 8, 2003, at age 99. Reflecting on his research, Dawkins says both sportswriters helped to write the “blueprint for the civil rights strategy” in the late ‘40, ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“…and a blueprint in that both writers had an instinct on when to be confrontational and when to reason with people and negotiate, especially in the case of Jackie Robinson with both writers, but more with Wendell Smith, since [he] roomed with Jackie Robinson,” Dawkins said. “Before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, he played for the Dodgers’ top minor league team, the Montreal Royals. So he had to try out and make the Royals and then if he did well with the Royals, he would move up to the Dodgers, which he did. But his spring training in Florida was horrible. It was horrible. I mean, at one point, he and the other black minor league player who came in with him were told they had to leave one of these towns or people are going to come in and physically harm them.”

Dawkins continued. 

“Wendell Smith had to make choices –  ‘Do I report on this because if I report on all the ugly things happening, it might kill Robinson’s chances or it might cause problems.’ So the journalist in him, sometimes he wore the public relations hat, but most of the time he wore the journalist hat, but he had to know kind of when to use nuance and sometimes when to go full throttle, and Sam Lacy did that too. They made these kinds of calculations,” Dawkins said. “…I think a lot of leaders in the Civil Rights Movement borrowed literally from that because in the civil rights flashpoints of that time, you had to know [that] there are going be times when you want to confront, but there are also times when you reason with people or you negotiate, or you try to appeal to their sense of decency and fair play. So, what Lacy and Smith did was more than just small sports.”

Dawkins also talked about the injustices that both Lacy and Smith endured as black journalists, noting both not being allowed into the press boxes during their coverage of the games.

“In fact, they were not given access until 1948, a year after Robinson breaks the color line. I mean, it was fraught and they had to deal with it in different ways. In the case of Sam Lacy, for instance, there’s a part in there where a number of white sports writers, at one point, boycotted and Lacy had to go up on the roof of the ballpark to report. So the white daily sports writers in turn, in unison, went up there with him to show some solidarity because after enough time seeing Lacy show up constantly, he was accepted by that fraternity of writers,” Dawkins says. “In the case of Wendell Smith, from ballpark to ballpark, he just had to just sit in the grandstand and not in the comfort of the acceptability of the press box. So they had to deal with that in different ways.”

On what he wants readers to take away from the book, Dawkins says he wants to showcase how sports and society are “intertwined.”

“It doesn’t have to be on parallel tracks that sports is just ball games and box scores. Especially now. It’s part of our society,” Dawkins said.

To pre-order a copy of “Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith: The Dynamic Duo that Desegregated American Sports,” go to or