A History Of African-American Athletes

Zeke Fuhrman@@mellamoelzekeAnalyst IIIOctober 24, 2008

Eighty years ago, 100 white men chasing a black man through a field was called the Ku Klux Klan. Today, it is called the PGA Tour. All the great golfers of the past including Nickalus, Snead, Hogan, Sarazen, and Palmer were all white. But in other professional sports, the dominant athlete has been black.

But a lot of crazy stuff has been happening. The most dominant center in the NBA is Chinese, so why shouldn't the best golfer be black, after the white man has dominated the sport of golf?

Before losing his number one ranking to Vijay Singh in 2004, Tiger Woods held the title for a record 264 weeks. I like the PGA for their "money list", in which players compete for their monetary earnings. In 13 pro seasons, Tiger has just over $82M in PGA earnings, well behind players who sign $100M dollar deals like Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano, and Alex Rodriguez. The first overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, JaMarcus Russell, signed a six-year $68M deal with the Oakland Raiders.

And might I add...Vijay Singh, the golfer who took over the number one ranking, is also black.

Arkansas Democratic Gazette journalist Jon Entine calculates the odds of a black American teenager becoming a professional athlete at 1-to-4,000 -- a long shot to be sure, but still 20 times greater than his white counterpart, who has a 1-in-80,000 chance of going pro.

Check out ESPN's SportCenter anytime. The highlight reels of pro and collegiate football and basketball games are full of dark bodies leaping, twisting, running, and committing superhuman feats. While only 13 percent of the US's population is black, black athletes constitute 80 percent of the players in the NBA, 67 percent of the NFL, but only 13 percent are American-born blacks.



The NFL originated in 1869. During the early years, blacks were banned from the NFL due to segregation. The first known black to play pro football was Charles Follis with the Shelby Athletic Club in 1902. When Follis retired from pro football in 1906, he was replaced the same year by Charles Baker, who played two seasons as a running back with the Akron Indians.

In 1933, after 31 years of limited integration, the NFL banned black athletes from participating in league play. When the NFL was reintegrated in 1946, black players made an immediate impact, leading their teams in most statistical categories.

The LA Rams became the first team to integrate when they hired black players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, both teammates of Jackie Robinson on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team, in 1946. The New York Giants and Detroit Lions were the only other teams to integrate during the 1940s, and more NFL teams recruited black players in the 50s. Several teams stood out for their racist beliefs, including the Washington Redskins, the last team to integrate when they signed RB Bobby Mitchell, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career and was a front office executive for the ‘Skins from 1969-2002. In the 70s, black players were among the NFL’s top stars. By the late 80s, black players began to make gains in positions from which they had been discouraged, particularly quarterback.

Even in today’s NFL, the white quarterback has dominated the black. Today, 28 of the 32 NFL teams are run by white quarterbacks. That leaves the exclusive club of David Garrard (JAX), JaMarcus Russell (OAK), Donovan McNabb (PHI) and Jason Campbell (WAS).

In 1953, Willie Thrower was the first black quarterback in the league. Doug Williams has been the only black QB to lead his team his team to a Super Bowl win when he led the Washington Redskins (the last team to integrate…) blew out the Denver Broncos 42-10 inSuper Bowl XXII. Although blacks have excelled on the football field, they have not been welcomed management positions. Today, there is only one black GM, which is Ozzie Newsome, when he took over the Baltimore Ravens in 2002.

Art Shell became the first black head coach in the NFL in 1989 when he was hired by the Los Angeles Raiders. Ten years later, Ray Rhodes and his assistants with the Green Bay Packers became the first all-black coaching staff in the NFL. Tony Dungy is the only black coach to win a Super Bowl, when he beat Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XXLII.



During the All-Star Game in 1997, the NBA unveiled a list of the 50 greatest players of all time to coincide with the league’s 50th anniversary. Of this list, only 18 of 50 are white. But since 1997, a few players have been unofficially added to the list: Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dominique Wilkins (all black).

Unarguably, the six greatest players of all-time are Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Elgin Baylor. Their combined career totals are 70 All-Star game, 19 NBA MVP awards, 5 Rookie of the Year awards, and 26 NBA Championships (along with 11 Finals MVP awards).



Honored internationally as the central colored figure in baseball, Jackie Robinson took the first steps toward integrating Major League Baseball when he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This gigantic stride prepared the way for the legendary feats of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. With Jackie Robinson on the roster, the Dodgers won the league title, and Robinson finished with a .297 batting average, a league leading 29 stolen bases, and was awarded the first ever Rookie of the Year award. Baseball owners were slowly discovering that the more they cared about the color of people’s money, the less they could care about the color of people’s skin. But Robinson had his share of problems. He began to speak up with pitchers narrowly missed his head, fans shouted epithets, and hate mail and death threats arrived frequently at his home. He fought denial of equal service in eating and sleeping quarters, or whenever he faced discrimination. Finally, the curative events of time and recognition of Robinson’s value to the team caused the majority of players to settle into the spirit of cooperation. With Robinson on the roster, the Dodgers won the NL pennant 6 of 10 years, including the 1955 World Series title.

When the Dodgers decided to trade Robinson to the Brooklyn Giants after the 1956 World Series, he retired from the game, declining to join his team’s archrivals from the same city. It was a fitting time for Robinson to retire, with a .311 lifetime average and 197 stolen bases over his career. Jackie Robinson’s number 42 was retired in 1997 throughout Major League Baseball because of the door he opened for that black athlete in pro sports.



Over the past sixty years, there have been only 18 black players in the NHL. The first of these players was Willie O’Ree. O’Ree made his debut as the first black player when he signed with the Quebec Aces, a minor league team affiliated with the Boston Bruins, in 1956. There would not be another black hockey player for twenty-five more years. During his second season, O’Ree was struck in the eye with a puck and lost 95% of his vision in his right eye. Doctors advised him to stop playing, but O’Ree was back on the ice eight weeks later.

Willie re-signed with the Aces in 1957 for $3,500. Quebec won the championship that year. Willie was called up by the Bruins in 1958, thus becoming the first black player in the NHL. He played two games before being sent back down to the minors.

The Bruins called Willie up again in 1961, where he played 43 games coming off the bench. He scored 4 goals and had 10 assists. He, as Jackie Robinson did, had to endure discrimination and racial slurs. O’Ree has said that taunting wasn’t as bad in Canada as it was in the US.

As the 1961 season ended, Bruins coach Milt Schmidt told Willie that they were so impressed with his play that he would be with the Bruins again the following season. However, six weeks later, he found out in the local paper that he had been traded to the Montreal Canadians. The Bruins never informed him of the trade.

Two months later, Willie was traded again, this time to the LA Kings, where he played six seasons and won scoring titles in 1964 and 1968. Willie retired in 1974.

But in 1978, at the age of 43, Willie came out of retirement to play for the San Diego Hawks. During a 70-game season, Willie scored 50 goals.

Unfortunately, racism still exists in sports today. Paul Hornung asked Notre Dame to lower its academic standards so more black athletes could be admitted. Bob Ryan told ESPN that the 2004 Vanderbilt Commodores men’s basketball team was too white to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament (They got to the Sweet 16 with only three white players on the roster), Larry Bird says the NBA needs more white superstars, Rush Limbaugh was dismissed from ESPN for his Donovan McNabb comments, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker suggested that black and Latino players play better than whites in the heat, and recently retired linebacker Junior Seau said the only way to stop Chargers running back LaDainain Tomlinson was to feed him watermelon and fried chicken.