As Major League Baseball prepares to stage its Midsummer Classic in New York City this month, what’s your favorite All-Star memory? Carl Hubble striking out five future Hall of Famers in a row? Pete Rose steamrolling into home plate in 1970? Bo Jackson’s mammoth home run in ’89?
Or how about another All-Star moment in another league, in a long-ago era and mostly forgotten time?
I’m talking about the American Football League’s All-Star game following the 1964 season. It’s an occasion that should be marked by anniversaries and soaring tributes. Instead, it’s barely a football footnote remembered by few.
The fact that the game was meant to be a showcase for the up-and-coming AFL hardly matters. What does is the actions of 21 African American players. Not during the game itself—which was anti-climatic—but several days before when the 21 staged a boycott that quite possibly changed the course of sports history in this country.
Many descriptions and accounts of racial prejudice in professional sports record a sordid narrative. The Jackie Robinson story and his breakthrough in MLB’s then apartheid-like system is well documented. Much less though has been written and recognized regarding the difficulty black athletes had in breaching professional football’s racial barriers.
As I recount in the book "Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short," pro football in this country dates back not just to the birth of the National Football League but to its forerunner—something called the American Professional Football Association. Accurately detailing the long plight of racial injustice in the sport is complex and some names, dates and events are obscure at best.
But there are some glaring facts that include early NFL team pioneers and owners—such as George Marshall of the Washington Redskins—purposely not signing or drafting black players.
It was not until 1949 that the NFL drafted an African American—George Taliaferro, who chose to sign not with the NFL but with the All-American Football Conference—and not until the 13th round.
When the NFL did begin to draft and sign black athletes, second class treatment prevailed. Because some U.S. cities held open hostility to blacks, this encouraged an influx of African Americans to sign with the Canadian Football League, then at its peak in competing with the NFL.
Then along came the upstart American Football League with its intrepid challenge to the staid, stodgy and racist NFL of the period. The AFL and its treatment of players was different; more tolerant and fair, one could say.
It is well known that pre-1960 (and afterward to a large degree), non-white players almost always had a lower contract amount than their white counterparts. But the AFL began to change that paradigm with its inception in 1960 and its aggressive strategy of signing black players.
So it was with a backdrop of more tolerant and fairer racial policies that the AFL was set to stage its fourth annual All-Star game after the 1964 season—in January 1965 and in the city of New Orleans, to be precise.
But several days before the game and emboldened perhaps by the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of the participants decided they had enough of the second class treatment being given to them in the host city.
In recalling what would be termed a boycott and in describing the differences between working relations in the AFL compared to the NFL, the late San Diego Chargers player Ernie Ladd remembered the time:
"The AFL owners like Lamar Hunt (Chiefs) and Bud Adams (Oilers) and Sonny Werblin (Jets) and Barron Hilton (Chargers) were the greatest men I've known over the years. Our owners understood us, they took a stand, and they helped make pro football.
"The NFL had great players, but they weren't real men. Whatever the owners told them, they did. The AFL gave birth to men who would stand up and fight. There were no yellow-bellied cowards in the AFL."
And fight they did with New Orleans. The All-Star game was slated to be held at Tulane Stadium and all seemed well until players began to arrive at the airport nearly a week before the contest and asked for taxi rides to their hotel.
If they were African American, they were denied, in most cases.
New Orleans had been aggressive and vocal about wanting to land a franchise with the AFL or the NFL but the city did itself no favors with its treatment of black players prior to this game. After being refused service on cab rides, in hotels and restaurants, all 21 African American players on the rosters for both squads gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel Jan. 10.
The players were angry, upset and in no mood for conciliatory gestures. In short order, they voted to not play in the game—the first boycott in U.S. sports history—if the AFL’s All-Star game remained in New Orleans.
Sports in the U.S. had never seen anything like this before.
Suddenly, there was a crisis as league officials and team owners did not want to abandon a flagship platform such as their All-Star game and lose the ensuing financial gains. A decision had to be made and quickly: Would the game go on without the 21 players who walked out—many of whom were the marquee names in the sport?
On Jan. 11, just five days before kickoff, AFL commissioner Joe Foss and team owners sided with their players and pulled the trigger. It was announced that the contest would be moved to Houston, Texas and played at Jeppesen Stadium.
Within the next two days, all players and league personnel reconvened in Houston where they were the first racially mixed group allowed to stay at the city’s Shamrock Hilton Hotel.
In the official game program that was sold at Jeppesen Stadium Jan. 16, Foss penned a letter to the fans and was effusive with praise for the city of Houston while carefully dodging the reason the game was moved there on short notice.
“Actually, the highest compliment the AFL could pay to you as a great sports city has just been paid. We needed help and we looked to you, knowing we could count on you as we have for five years.”
As profiled by David Barron of the Houston Chronicle, the 1965 AFL All-Star game was called, “The second great battle of New Orleans,” by former columnist Wells Twombly. Barron goes on to correctly point out that, “The ’64 All-Stars might have been the greatest aggregation of athletes to set foot in Houston. Nine of the 58 players are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
The insurrection by the 21 African American football players and their refusal to play in a city that shamefully gave a wink and nod to racial injustice was bold and momentous. It was the first boycott in history of an entire city by a professional sports event.
Among a list of questions that still begs to be asked nearly 50 years later: What would the NFL have done under similar conditions?
As noted, the game itself was clearly anti-climatic with the West on record as winning 38-14. But as we celebrate baseball’s Midsummer Classic this summer, let’s remember another sport and another time—when the score of the game was far overshadowed by the brave historic heroics of 21 athletes.