Before Jackie ... Black Athletes Made History and Drew Fans despite Oppressive Color Barriers

By Whitaker, Charles | Ebony, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Before Jackie ... Black Athletes Made History and Drew Fans despite Oppressive Color Barriers


Whitaker, Charles, Ebony


WITH the exception of cursory acknowledgement of Negro league baseball and perfunctory references to track great Jesse Owens and boxing legends Jack Johnson and joe Louis, Americans rarely concede that Black athletes were making their marks on a variety of sports well before Jackie Robinson's celebrated breakthrough.

Yet the annals of American sports are replete with the names of Black men and women who, defying tremendous odds, helped refine and redefine the games the country loves.

The history of Blacks in American sports is practically as old as the sports themselves. Major league baseball, for example, a construct that did not truly take the nation by storm until some time after the Civil War, actually admitted its first Black player in 1884-Moses Fleetwood Walker, a catcher for the Toledo Mudhens of the old American Association. And prior to that, Blacks had played, in spite of mounting antagonism, in one of the major league's amateur precursors, the National Association of Baseball Players.

But it is the old Negro National League, born in 1920, and the Negro American League, which surfaced in 1937, that most people conjure up when they think of Blacks in professional baseball prior to 1947. The Negro Leagues--with fabled players such as Leroy (Satchel) Paige, Josh Gibson and james (Cool Papa) Bell--was the principal showcase for Black baseball players in the first half of the 20th century, and its stars were among the greatest ever to play the game.

Among the most popular forums for the display of Negro League talents was the legendary East-West or All-Star game, begun in 1933 and played in Chicago's Comiskey Park, home of the major league's White Sox. Me game featured players selected in polls conducted by the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. In its heyday, the East-West game, the biggest sporting event in Black America at the time, consistently outdrew its White major league counterpart and regularly attracted nearly 50,000 fans to Comiskey.

The financial success of the East-West game--which some say fueled Dodgers owner Branch Rickey's resolve to integrate the major leagues--coupled with the lobbying efforts of Black activists such as A. Philip Randolph are among the factors that helped pave the way for baseball's integration.

Similarly, financial considerations, and the advances of a fledgling competitor, prompted the National Football League to end its 13-year ban on Black players in 1946.

As in baseball, Blacks were a part of organized football almost from the moment the sport became a staple of the American college experience in the late 19th century. A few outstanding Black athletes were integral to the early success of White college teams (mostly schools in the Northeast and Midwest), including Harvard, Northwestern, the University of Michigan, MIT, the University of Nebraska and Amherst.

In fact, Harvard's William Henry Lewis, a center, was the first Black selected for All-America honors. Walter Camp, the Collier's magazine writer who devised the All-America team--a grouping of the best players at every position--named Lewis as the best center in the country in 1892 and 1893. Lewis, who began his college career at Amherst, where he played from 1888-1891, was elected captain of the Amherst football team, making him, by most accounts, the first Black captain of a White college team.

By the turn of the century, other Black collegians would also capture national attention as standouts on White college teams. Between the years 1915 and 1918, two Black players shone especially bright: Paul Robeson and Frederick Fritz) Pollard.

Robeson, the famed singer/actor/activist, was an All-America end at Rutgers, and was deemed the most domineering pass rusher of his time. A gifted student who graduated with highest honors, Robeson also starred on the Rutgers basketball, baseball and track teams.

Pollard, of Brown University, was the first Black All-America running back and the first Black player signed with the American Professional Football Association (APFA), the predecessor of the NFL. …

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