Who was the first African American in the National Basketball Association? There are three right answers. Three players were signed to different NBA teams in 1950. Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton was inked by the New York Knickerbockers. Charles, "Chuck" Cooper was the first African American drafted (for the Boston Celtics). Earl Lloyd (left below) made his debut in October, 1950 for the Washington Capitals. Lloyd was also the first NBA African American assistant coach in 1968. Earl was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. Lloyd is recognized as the first black professional NBA player. Football: Kenny Washington was the first African American to sign a contract in 1946 with an NFL team. Washington was discovered at UCLA. While at the school, he played alongside of Jackie Robinson. Washington's brief career lasted three seasons with the L.A. Rams. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1958. Hockey William "Willie" O'Ree hit the ice with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958 becoming the first black person to play in the National Hockey League. O'Ree became the NHL's Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity when he hung up his skates. Baseball Number 42, Jackie Robinson was the first African American player at the start of the 1947 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Outside of these major sports leagues, let's not leave the women out. Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Simone Biles have all made their mark in track and field or gymnastics. Althea Gibson along with the Williams sisters Venus and Serena have a legacy of outstanding achievement on the tennis court.
Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who died on November 7, 2011, defeated Muhammad Ali in 1971 to become the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Frazier trained and developed as a boxer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He won three Golden Glove titles (1962 -1964). Joe also won the gold medal for boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, won an Olympic gold medal in Rome as a light heavy weight in 1960. He defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 to win the heavy weight championship for the first time. Ali won the crown again in 1974 by beating George Foreman. "The Greatest" became the first in boxing history to win the heavy-weight title three times when he took out Leon Spinks in 1978. Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army (he was a conscientious objector on religious and moral grounds). He was stripped of his first title in 1967. Five time World Middleweight boxing Champion "Sugar" Ray Robinson won the title for the first time by defeating Jake La Motta on February 14, 1951. Robinson lost and regained the crown during the 1950’s, winning it for the fifth time on March 25, 1958 beating Carmen Basilio. Michael Gerald Tyson turned professional in 1985. He stopped WBC champion Trevor Berbick in the second round in 1986 to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history at age 20. Tyson defeated Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs, Frank Bruno, Carl Williams, and Michael Spinks early in his career. Later, Tyson would lose to James "Buster" Douglas. Tyson reclaimed the WBC and WBA titles in 1996. In 2002, Mike suffered an eighth-round knockout in an unsuccessful title bid against Lennox Lewis. When Mike Tyson retired in 2005, he had 50 wins, 6 loses, and 2 ties with 44 knockouts. Named "Fighter of the Century," in 1960, Joe Louis Barrow was a boxing folk hero. He was known as "The Brown Bomber" when he stepped into the ring. Born in Lafayette, Alabama (1914), Lewis worked his way up the ranks to become a contender. He captured the heavyweight championship in 1937, and defended his title 25 times. Lewis was champion from 1937-1949. He’s the only champion to defend boxing’s top title while in the military, and during war. Listen to the BlackHistoryPeople.com production of Joe Louis' historic fight.
Wendell Scott was no angel. At age 20, he had his first encounter with the law. The so called "Jackie Robinson" of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), despite the odds, succeeded using his street smarts to win at the racing game. It didn't hurt that Scott perfected the art of running moonshine in fast cars in the back roads of south - central Virginia prior to breaking the stock car color line in 1952. Hard Driving: the Wendell Scott Story, the American Odyssey of NASCAR'S first black driver is a dramatic profile of an inspired achiever who wouldn't give up while pursuing his dream. The roadblocks were many, back in the Brown vs. the Board of Education days, as the modern civil rights struggle was kicking off in the 1950s. Hard Driving gives a blow by blow description of Scott's emergence as an African American community celebrity across the South at race tracks where his presence was ridiculed by the racists of the day. I enjoyed reading Scott's perspective on exactly what happened during the early years of his career. As a black history month project, the Wendell Scott story deserves your attention.
In August of 2006, we wrote about swimmer Cullen Jones, and the role he would play on the 2008 US Olympic team. Jones swam the 3rd leg of the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing to help the US team win the 2008 gold. Take another look at Cullen Jones, the first African American to hold a swimming world record.
As the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China get ready to role, we feature a blast from the past with 6 black history people who created Olympic Game highlights: Award winning Olympic athlete Willye White is the only American woman to participate in five different Olympiads and finish in the top 12 in her events. She competed at age 16 in Melbourne Australia in 1956 when she won a silver medal in the long jump. White was on the Olympic team in Rome in 1960.She won a silver medal in the 400 meter relay in Tokyo in 1964. White was also successful competing in 1968 (Mexico City), and 1972 (Munich, Germany). Muhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal in Rome as a light heavyweight boxer in 1960. "Smokin’" Joe Frazier won the gold medal for boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Ralph Metcalfe was a standout in track at the 1932 and 1936 Olympic games. In 1936, Jesse Owens made history in Berlin, Germany. A member of the U.S. Olympic track team, Owens became the first American to win four gold medals. Tennessee State University’s Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome (100 meter dash, 200 meter dash, and relay team).
Beyond Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods, Wilma Rudolph, and other famous sports legends, black history honor rolls are filled with many other competitive athletes who made their mark. Here are 5 sports originals who richly deserve a second look, although they may not be the best known. Alice Coachman - Represented the women's track team at Tuskegee Institute. Alice was the only woman on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team to win a gold medal in track and field (high jump). Dan Bankhead - The first African American pitcher in Major League Baseball (August 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers). Fritz Pollard - First black All-American (1916). This football legend played for Brown University between 1915 - 1916. He played in the first Rose Bowl game (January 1, 1916 - Brown vs. Washington State). Marshall W. "Major" Taylor - A cyclist who won the World Cycle Racing Championship in 1899. Taylor won the U.S. trophy in 1900. He was called the fastest bike rider in the world. Pele' - Born Edson Arantes De Nascimento in Tres Coracoes, Brazil, "The Black Pearl" became the most famous soccer player in the world. At 17, he led the Brazilian team to their first World Cup in Sweden (1958).
Two different eras, two different people, and one amazing record that continues to astonish the sports world. Hank Aaron's America of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's was a different world from today's social environment in and outside of baseball. Aaron's achievement was clearly associated with not only sports greatness, but with civil rights advancement and black history, reflective of mid and late 20th Century cultural changes in America. It's clear that the Aaron milestone, more than Barry Bonds' achievement (noted below), was a crowning confirmation of the capabilities of African Americans (in a society of doubters) during the age of Ali, R&B, and Roots. Let's look back on the Aaron legacy. Henry Aaron is the only corporate executive in the world that can brag about hitting 755 lifetime home runs as a player in United States Major League Baseball. Hammerin’ Hank passed Babe Ruth’s record on April 8th, 1974 when he hit home run number 715. Aaron became a professional player in 1952 for the Indianapolis Clowns, a black barnstorming team. The National League Milwaukee Braves purchased his contract for $2,500 and assigned him to their Eau Claire Wisconsin farm team the same year. Hank Aaron was promoted to Jacksonville in the Sally League in 1953 finally breaking in at the major league level in 1954, never to look back. On August 1, 1982, Aaron was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He's now the second greatest home run hitter of all time (Barry Bonds passed him with 756 on August 7, 2007). In life after baseball, Henry Aaron has been a success in the business world as a corporate Vice President of Community Relations for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
On Wednesday, January 31, 2007, Joe Louis' famous boxing gloves were donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Listen to the BlackHistoryPeople.com production of Joe Louis' historic second fight with Max Schmeling. A Windsor, Ontario Canada collector donated the gloves (worn in the first Louis - Schmeling encounter, which Louis lost). The family making the donation had the gloves in their possession for over 70 years! The Smithsonian already had the towel tossed in the ring to end the June 1938 rematch, along with other related items. As a special Black History Month treat, listen to our special production featuring my narration and hear how Joe Louis made boxing history.
John "Buck" O'Neil, who recently passed away at 94, was the first black major league baseball coach. The Chicago Cubs hired the former Negro League first baseman and manager in 1962. In recent years, O'Neil promoted the game, did many interviews, and appeared on radio and television programs, including Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "Baseball." Buck proudly reviews his career in his autobiography, "I was Right on Time." Here are some Buck O'Neil highlights... 1942 & 1943: Negro League All Star 1945: Lead the Negro league with a .353 batting average Between 1938 - 1955, he managed the Miami Giants, the Shreveport Acme Giants, the Memphis Red Sox, and the Kansas City Monarchs Played baseball in both Cuba and Mexico O'Neil was one of many Negro League players on the 2006 special election ballot to possibly enter the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Although he didn't make it, here's the Buck O'Neil statistics profile by Baseball Reference.