Tiger Woods. Serena Williams. LeBron James. These successful athletes are household names. Each reached the pinnacle of their respective sport and has been judged on the merits of their achievements rather than the color of their skin. But things haven’t always been this simple for athletes of color.
Pioneering athletes fought against overt, institutional prejudices that denied them a place on the field or court. Most people know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but how many people know who made the same breakthroughs in basketball, hockey, tennis, or golf? These heroes deserve our recognition because their efforts have paved the way for the stars of today.
Frank Robinson was one of the greatest hitters in baseball while playing in an era of dominant pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. He was awarded Most Valuable Player honors in both the National and American Leagues, won the rare Triple Crown (most hits, most runs batted in, and most home runs in a single season), and was a key member of two World Series championship teams. When Robinson retired, only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays had more home runs than his 586. He played in three decades, from 1956 to 1976, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.
Perhaps his most important achievement came when the Cleveland Indians made him the team’s player-manager in 1975 and thereby the first Black manager in Major League Baseball. True to form, Robinson hit a homerun in his first at bat in this historic role (the team finished fourth in the American League East that year). Robinson went on to become full-time manager for Cleveland, as well as the San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, and original Washington Nationals (which later became the Montreal Expos). Unfortunately, his record as a manager paled in comparison to that as a player. From 1975 to his retirement in 2006, Robinson managed 2,245 games but won only 1,065 of them. In 2005 and 2006, he was voted the worst manager in baseball by players in Sports Illustrated polls. Regardless of his managerial win-loss record, Robinson’s efforts paved the way for future managers of color.
Althea Gibson, a true Jill-of-all-trades, was a professional golfer and tennis player, as well as an accomplished singer, musician, actress, administrator, and activist. She was a fearsome and ferocious athlete who many believe could hold her own if competing against today’s tennis stars. Gibson was the first Black athlete, male or female, to win at Wimbledon. She retired with six Grand Slam tournament singles wins, six Grand Slam doubles wins, and four Grand Slam mixed doubles wins. Her greatest year was 1957, when she held both the singles and doubles titles in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. After her retirement, Gibson played in the Ladies Professional Golf Association, recorded an album as a singer, and later held multiple state and local government positions in New Jersey ranging from the state’s athletic commissioner to the head of the East Orange Department of Recreation.
Sadly though, Gibson suffered the injustices of her era as much as Jackie Robinson. She was not allowed to stay in many hotels or play in tournaments at certain establishments because of Jim Crow laws. Because of these barriers, and the generally low prize winnings of the time, Gibson dealt with financial difficulties throughout her life. To this day, Gibson is still regarded as perhaps the greatest and most influential female athlete in history.
Tiger Woods wasn’t the first Black man on the pro golf tour. That honor goes to Charlie Sifford who broke the color barrier in 1954. Sifford never placed higher than a tie for 32nd in one of the four major tournaments, but he did notch two PGA Tour victories and more than a dozen other wins in non-sanctioned events. Sifford became the first Black winner of a fully-sanctioned PGA Tour event with his victory at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, and followed it with a win at the Los Angeles Open in 1969.
Exclusive golf clubs of this period were upholders of racism and exclusion. People of color were only permitted on the course as servants and employees, never as club members or players. When Sifford did finally break the barrier, he suffered horrendous abuse from members of these clubs and the public. It has been well documented that some of the most prestigious of the golf tournaments changed their rules just to prevent Sifford from playing. Legend has it that when he was leading the 1963 Canadian Open, a notice was posted on the clubhouse bulletin board stating that a victory there would no longer guarantee an invite to the famed Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Whether this is true or not, no Black golfer would play in the Masters until Lee Elder received an invitation in 1972.
Sifford garnered plenty of recognition and accolades later in life. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. President Barack Obama awarded Sifford the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
Canada is known for hockey, and one of the sport’s most significant players is also one of the country’s least known. Willie O’Ree is recognized not so much for his achievements on the ice, but for breaking the NHL color barrier. In the minor leagues, O’Ree twice won scoring titles in the Western Hockey League. He spent most of his time playing for the WHL Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls. While many players advance from the minor leagues to the majors, O’Ree took a more circuitous route. He played two games in the NHL in 1958, went back to the minors, then returned to play 43 games for the Boston Bruins in 1961. After that, he played exclusively in the minor leagues.
Like elsewhere in pro sports at the time, he was subjected to consistent racist abuse from fans—especially, O’Ree has said, in the United States. Perhaps as a result, there wouldn’t be another Black player in the NHL until over a decade later, in 1974. O’Ree was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in November.
The NBA was in its infancy in 1951, and it looked a lot different than it does today. There were only 11 teams, and arenas were small. There was no three-point shot or 24-second clock. And prior to that year, the NBA was mainly white. But that changed with the drafting of Black players Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd. Both Cooper and Clifton were drafted higher than Lloyd, but scheduling gave Lloyd the distinction of being the first Black athlete to play in an NBA game when the Washington Capitals took on the Rochester Royals on October 31, 1951. Lloyd only played seven games before being drafted to fight in the Korean War. When he returned, the Capitols had folded, but he was picked up by Syracuse Nationals, the forerunners of today’s Philadelphia 76ers, and played six seasons before finishing out his career with the Detroit Pistons.
Lloyd’s impact remains to this day. Like others breaking the color barrier, he suffered racial prejudice. Lloyd was refused service at hotels and restaurants and was the subject of racial epithets hurled from the stands. Most of his teammates were generally accepting of him, as they had played on integrated teams in college. After he retired from playing, Lloyd went on to coach. He became the league’s first Black assistant coach in 1968 and their second Black head coach, both times with the Detroit Pistons. For his historic efforts and achievements, Lloyd was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.