Jackie Robinson is the most celebrated black athlete who has broken the color barrier of any of those in the four major sport leagues in America. Through the multitude of movies, documentaries and stories told, we all have a great glimpse of the impact Robinson made on Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1947.
As the calendar flipped to February, we celebrate Black History Month, which led me to think about some of the other black men who had enough courage to brave the unknown and become the first black person to play in their respective leagues.
I think MLB has done a great job of highlighting the legacy of Robinson. The other sports have not done such a great job of following suit. We have all seen and heard the horrible things that Robinson had to endure, and I am sure those other sport trailblazers had an equally tough time in their journeys. I guess the major reason Robinson is celebrated so much is because baseball was the most popular sport in the country for many years, coupled with the fact that Robinson was one of the best players to ever play the game.
I am one of the biggest football fans that I know. I thought I was a great historian of the game as well, but when I tried to think of who the first black player in the NFL was, I could not think of a name. Admittedly, I was a bit ashamed that I had no clue who it was, so I had to do a little digging.
Through my research, I found that there were several answers to this question. Charles Follis is believed to be the first black professional football player, having played for the Shelby Steamfitters from 1902 through 1906. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Kenny Washington was the first African American to sign a contract with an NFL team in the post-World War II era in 1946 by the Los Angeles Rams.
Washington had several surgeries on his knees throughout his career, which shortened his time with the Rams. He played with Los Angeles for three seasons and still holds the Rams team record for the longest run from scrimmage (92 yards). While his career was short in the NFL, he opened doors for future players to walk through.
Washington was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956 and his number 13 jersey was the first to be retired at UCLA.
The NBA was finally integrated in 1950. On October 31 of that year, Earl Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game when he played in the season opener for the Washington Capitols. Two other black players also made their debuts that year as well. Chuk Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton played for the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, respectively.
After only seven games with the Capitols, Lloyd was drafted into the military and was sent to Korea for two seasons. Upon his return, the Caps had folded, so he went on to play with the Syracuse Nationals, who would later become the Philadelphia 76ers. Lloyd played in the NBA for nine seasons and went on to coach the Detroit Pistons. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
I was really intrigued to find out who the first black player was in the NHL (National Hockey League) in 1958. I don’t know as much as I should about the sport, so I was curious to find out who broke the color barrier in the sport.
Willie O’Ree was the first black player to lace up his skates in the NHL. O’Ree is Canadian born and played with the Boston Bruins. He is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson” of ice hockey. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November of 2018.
In 2018, the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor to recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.
For over two decades, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, traveling across the continent to schools and hockey programs to promote messages of inclusion, dedication and confidence.
All of these legendary gentlemen need to be celebrated as much as Robinson. They fought through extreme racism and bigotry to pave the way for the superstars in these sports we have today.
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