Athletes That Have Paved The Way
The amazing African American athletes that we see today have worked hard to carve out a niche in their respective sports. While it takes hard work, perseverance, and often times a healthy dose of good luck, for many of these successful athletes it also took the courage of others to knock down the barriers of segregation and ignorance that burdened this country for so long.
Jackie Robinson 1/31/1919 – 10/24/1072 – Robinson hammered hard at the walls of professional baseball. He first made a name for himself in the Negro League and finally broke through in 1947 to become a dominant force in Major League Baseball when he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Among his many accomplishments is the 1947 MLB Rookie of the Year and the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player. Robinson’s career came to a close in 1956. He finished with a batting average of .311 and 1518 hits. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962 and is the only player in MLB history to have his famous #42 retired not just from the team, but across the sport.
Joe Louis 5/13/1914 – 4/12/1981 – Perhaps the greatest boxer of all time, Joe Louis- the Brown Bomber, held the heavyweight championship with class and style. Louis defended his title 25 times from 1937- 1949 earning his opponents membership into what became known as the “Bum of the Month Club”. Boxing was not the only venue in which Joe Louis displayed his class and style. Louis was a diehard supporter of his country and served in the military, working his way up to the rank of Sergeant. He also spent time motivating and improving the morale of troops and civilians throughout WWII. His efforts were posthumously recognized in 1982 when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. As with many athletes, Louis loved another sport: Golf. As well as being a boxing champion he is also credited with shattering the walls of segregation in the Professional Golf Association, by participating in a PGA tournament in 1952 as well as assisting the early careers of other African American golfers in the 1950’s.
Jesse Owens 9/12/1913 – 3/31/1980 – There may be no other athlete of any origin who stared harder into the eyes of adversity than Jesse Owens. Owens competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Not only did Owens earn four Gold Medals, an achievement that stood unequaled for almost 50 years, but his achievement during Hitler’s rise to power was a direct assault on the Nazi assumption of Aryan superiority. During these games Owens also became the first black athlete to ever receive a personal sponsorship when he was approached by the founder of Adidas and asked to wear the famous brand in Olympic competition. Owens name now graces the Track and Field top athlete of the year award known as the Jesse Owens Award. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990.
Althea Gibson 8/25/1927 – 9/28/2003 - Althea Gibson took a page out the books of both Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Excelling early on in tennis, Gibson broke through the color barrier to become the first African American woman to play on the World Tennis Tour. In 1956 Gibson won the Grand Slam title. She was the Wimbledon champion as well as the US Open champion in 1957 and 1958. Along with success in tennis, Althea Gibson also was the first African American woman to break into the LPGA in 1964. Although her golf game was not on the same level as her tennis game, Gibson was able to notch a second place finish in the 1970 Buick Open.
Alice Coachmen 11/9/1923- Present - Battling through adversity in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Alice Coachmen dominated the high Jump in Track and Field competition. The cancellation of two consecutive Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944 may have cost her the chance to showcase her abilities in her prime years, but Coachmen showed up in the 1948 Olympic Summer Games to become the first African American woman to earn a Gold Medal.
Wendell Scott 8/29/1921 – 12/23/1990 – Perhaps no sport has been tougher to break into than auto racing. NASCAR, often dubbed as a redneck sport may have roots in the south, but has always attracted competitors of every race and nationality. Wendell Scott made a name for himself as an African American and a hard charging racer throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s on the NASCAR circuit. Often going bumper to bumper with the best drivers and competition NASCAR had to offer, Scott did it on a shoestring budget and made every lap count. He finished several seasons in the top ten in points. The first black racer to hold a NASCAR license was also the first African American to win a NASCAR event in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. Wendell Scott’s only win came in 1963, winning by two laps over Buck Baker. At the end of the race, Baker was awarded the win. It was a full two years before Scott was recognized as the winner of the race. In further controversy it was not until 2010 that Scott’s family was actually awarded the trophy for winning the race.
Wilma Rudolph 6/23/1940 – 11/12/1994 – It was not just a color barrier that Wilma Rudolf overcame on the way to being recognized as the fastest woman on earth, but overwhelming physical ailments as well. Rudolf was born prematurely and was a victim of polio as a child. This disease resulted in a twisted left leg that took years to straighten during her childhood. She overcame the handicap on the way to becoming a star athlete and by the time she was 16 she had earned a spot on the 1956 Olympics team, earning a Bronze Medal in the 4 x 100m relay. It was not until the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome that Rudolf set the world on fire. In the 1960 games Rudolf became the first American woman of any color to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. She set records in all three events, but her record in the 200m granted her the title of the fastest woman on earth.
Bill Russell 2/12/1934- Present - Russell may not have been the first African American to play in the NBA, but Russell took the game to a new level. He was barely recruited out of high school to play college ball, but while in college he caught the eye of legendary coach Red Auerbach. Auerbach signed Russell to play for the Celtics in 1956. That year was a big year for Russell as he garnered his second NCAA championship at the University of San Francisco, and became the captain of the 1956 American Olympics Basketball team. Because of his Olympic commitment Russell could not start his professional basketball career until after the Olympic Games. He led the Olympic team to a Gold Medal victory over the Soviet Union and then took his spot on the Boston Celtics midway through the 1956-1957 season. The Celtics went on to play and win the NBA championship that year earning Russell the honor of being the first man to earn back to back NCAA and NBA championships. He went on to become the first African American coach in the NBA and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
Marion Motley 6/5/1920 – 7/27/1999 – Marion Motley was one of the first three players to break through professional football’s color barrier in 1946. After successful seasons of college ball Motley forwent a degree instead choosing to play for the newly formed Cleveland Browns in the All America Football Conference. The Browns went on to win championships all four years of the AAFC existence until the league shut down in 1949. When the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, Motley and his team also won the NFL championship that year. Marion Motley went on to be honored with membership to the 1940’s All Decade Team, the 75th Anniversary All Time Team and was inducted into the NFL Hall Of Fame in 1968.
Charlie Wiggins 1897-1979 - Wiggins was a die hard racer in the early part of the twentieth century who became known as the Negro Speed King. A desire to compete at the highest level of auto racing brought him to Indianapolis in the early 1920’s. Despite his ability as a racecar driver Wiggins was denied entry into the Indianapolis 500 due to segregation rules set up by the American Automobile Association. Wiggins’ answer to the slight was to form his own racing league that raced across the Midwest. He drew the attention of William Rucker, who formed the Gold and The Glory Sweepstakes, a 100 mile race that competed annually at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Wiggins went on to win the race three times. Although blocked from Indianapolis 500 competition, Wiggins befriended several prominent Indianapolis 500 drivers, one of which asked to drive a car designed and built by Wiggins known as the Wiggins Special. Although Wiggins allowed drivers such as Harry McQuinn to race his car, but Wiggins did the testing. Wiggins lost his leg in a wreck at the 1936 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, and although he never got to race in the Indianapolis 500 he spent the rest of his life fighting segregation in auto racing and encouraging the participation of African Americans in the sport.