Some people think the life of a Negro League ballplayer was glamorous, but the truth is it was just the opposite. Most of the teams travelled on a bus, and these buses were not the type you see at your local Greyhound terminal. When new, the buses that Negro players travelled in were barely adequate, at best. But after traveling day after day, the fresh exterior did nothing to mask the disheveled interior.
Teams would play a game in a backwater town and, unable to find a place to eat and shower, they would go on to the next town where a game was scheduled. Travel for these teams often required them to stick to the back roads, and with the bumpy surface and the stench of the players, sleep was impossible. Unable to use the facilities in establishments along the way, toilet time was usually spent in the woods or along the side of the road.
From time to time, when stopping for gas, the teams would luck up on a station with “Colored Only” restrooms. The term restroom can only be used lightly. However, even with cold water, the opportunity to take a shave was a luxury. Imagine what it was like standing in line waiting to freshen up, and there were 24 guys in front of you. Even after you completed your turn in the restroom, the energy you used to attempt to wash those reeking armpits seemed futile. After all, you had to still put on the same clothes you had just taken off.
In movies depicting the mood of that time period, you would see food service for coloreds in the back of the establishment. Although the food was for the most part second-rate and the service demeaning, it was a treat for these players to get something to eat—no matter the quality of food or the manner of service. On one occasion the proprietor instructed the players to put their money in an ash tray. The sole purpose of this was so the waiter didn’t have to touch the hand of a Negro.
The teams would consider themselves lucky when they played in a town and were able to sleep in a YMCA, the local jail or a funeral home. Once in a while, they would schedule a game in a town with a hotel for Negros. This is also not the luxury you might think. The bed bugs and other vermin were so rampant that the guys would place newspapers between the sheets and the mattress and sleep with the lights on. The lights kept most of the unwanted company at bay, and they helped you identify that feeling of something crawling on your arm.
Players would look forward to towns with movie theaters. Entry was a quarter, and the guys would watch the flick and afterwards they would hunker down in the seat and catch a much needed nap. This sleep was uninterrupted because the White ushers weren’t anxious to go into the “Colored” section.
The big treat for these players was when they played in a town where the colored population embraced them. They could barbecue after the game, and the players would not only leave with full bellies, they would have a bag with a little carry-out to keep them company for a while.
My pop, Sam Lacy, experienced some of this, but on a grander scale. He would be recruited to play for White teams and they would take care to see that he was able to find lodging near the team. Although he was a youngster, he was able to convince his mother to let him go with the promise to write every day. On one occasion he circled under a fly ball caught in the wind and came away with a broken finger. According to him, this was when he got on the fast track to learn how to write left-handed.
When traveling with a team in Mexico, he became curious about the enjoyment the older guys were finding in the consumption of rum and Coke. He decided to try it, and after his first sip he joined AA on the spot.
Some of these experiences seemed far-fetched in the telling, but being Sam’s son, I was fortunate to meet some of the players who lived through them.