TAMPA, APR 18, 2018 – Every April 15th, yours truly gets to do something he looks forward to all year. No, it’s NOT paying taxes, as I defy you to find ANY PERSON who actually enjoys that act who isn’t recently dismissed from an institution where the staff runs around with ‘butterfly nets’ to coral the inma… Errrrr… patients who inhabit said facility.
What I DO look forward to every April 15th is taking in a baseball game, either in person or via television, watching as all those in uniform have one thing in common – they’re ALL wearing “42” on their backs and sleeve to honor the great Hall of Famer and Pioneer Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It’s a testament to modern society that most Americans… in fact, most folks who follow baseball outside of the United States, know the story of Jackie Robinson and his contribution to racial equality, blazing a trail for athletes as well as other social contributors to follow.
This past Sunday I found myself at a Rays VS Phillies game, enjoying as my favorite team from childhood now played my favorite American League team. Watching the Phillies win to sweep the Rays, I found myself wondering about how Robinson may have inspired others in sports… players, owners, etc… in their quest to play, participate or bring their product to the masses.
The NFL was more ‘pro-active’ in racial integration, likely because professional football in the early part of last century wasn’t the product you see today. In fact, college football was held in a much higher esteem, as ‘professionals’ were thought of as barnstorming misfits, playing the game since they couldn’t find ‘legitimate’ jobs.
Actually, many pros simply played the sport to augment measly wages of the day. Amongst the African-American men during this era, most famous was ‘Fritz’ Pollard who played from 1919-1925 and was later the first African-American Head Coach for any major American sport – predating Frank Robinson and Art Shell by half a century. Pollard is enshrined at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Also preluding Jackie Robinson’s contract with the Dodgers was Kenny Washington, an accomplished two-sport star for UCLA who played both baseball and football. Washington played both sports with Jackie Robinson while they both attended UCLA, and signed a contract on March 21st, 1946 to play for the Los Angeles Rams when the team moved west from Cleveland. Washington played for the Rams for two years (1946-48) alongside another African-American, fellow UCLA alum Woody Strode, a Rams End for the 1946 season.
Two of the most famous African-Americans of the era played for the Cleveland Browns of the All American Football Conference prior to the team’s merger into the National Football League. Guard Bill Willis made holes for his teammate, Fullback Marion Motley, notably the best running back of the league. Motley, Willis and their quarterback Otto Graham were the class of the AAFC.
Another standout player from the AAFC was R.C. Owens, who would catch passes lobbed up high from his San Francisco 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle. These scoring plays were named “Alley Oop” plays, as Owens was a former basketball player from the College of Idaho, playing with teammate (and roommate) Elgin Baylor who would later come to fame playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, the “Alley Oop” was first widely acknowledged coming from football, NOT basketball. The Browns, 49ers and Baltimore Colts would later be merged into the NFL, as Motley and Willis would eventually be enshrined in Canton as well.
Speaking of Basketball, the National Basketball Association (NBA) of today has NO resemblance to professional hoops of years ago, as nary an African-American would be found playing in the league. Of course, the Globetrotters had been around since 1926 from their origins in the Midwest (it wouldn’t be until 1929 when the “Harlem” Globetrotters took the mantle for the team), but African-Americans were excluded from the league. If you wanted to play ball, you went to play for Abe Saperstein and the ‘Trotters…
… And since owners for the National Basketball League (NBL) and Basketball Association of America (BAA) needed people to attend their games, playing college All-Stars or exhibitions with the Globetrotters were the best ways to draw. Primarily for this reason, teams didn’t wish to cross Saperstein. In fact, it wouldn’t be until October 31st, 1950 when Earl Lloyd would be the first Black man to play in the NBA, which had just come into existence following a consolidation of the BAA absorbing six teams from the defunct NBL.
Technically however, Lloyd wouldn’t be the first to integrate into a professional basketball league, as Bill Jones of the University of Toledo played under short-term contracts for Toledo’s team in the NBL in 1942 when league rosters were depleted during the war years. The ‘official’ integration would come eight years later for the recognized NBA.
“Red” Auerbach of the Boston Celtics drafted Charles “Chuck” Cooper of Duquesne at the NBA Draft of 1950 to officially break the racial barrier in basketball. Cooper, Lloyd and former Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton would be the first African-Americans to play in the league. Clifton was sold off to the NBA’s Knicks by Saperstein after Clifton informed his teammates that their White collegiate All-Star opponents on their summer basketball tour were being paid more for than the ‘Trotters.
Unless you’re a basketball aficionado, the names Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton would probably be unknown to you, but Red Auerbach’s name undoubtedly is more recognized. Auerbach as Celtics coach, who was instrumental in the basketball’s integration by his drafting of Cooper, would later start the first All-African-American NBA starting lineup on December 26th, 1964. The great Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and ‘Satch’ Sanders would welcome Willie Naulls, playing for an injured Tommy Heinsohn.
As Jackie Robinson is celebrated – and rightly so – it’s also important to know about other pioneers of racial integration in professional sports who don’t receive as much fanfare. Be sure to remember men like Fritz Pollard, Kenny Washington, Marion Motley, R.C. Owens, Bill Jones, Earl Lloyd and “Chuck” Cooper, as their accomplishments need be remembered as well.
Jay “Captain Jack” Levy, BCP Contributor