When Jack Johnson defeated white boxing champion Tommy Burns, and then successfully defended his title against former the former heavyweight champion of the world, white boxer Jim Jeffries, Johnson proved to the boxing community and its fan base that he was not just the black heavyweight champion, but the all-around champion. The racism that he faced prevented him for many years from even competing for the title, and it was not until Burns accepted the challenge of facing a black man that Johnson was able to vie for the championship. After Johnson retired from the sport, though, it was 1937 when Joe Louis became the next African-American boxer to claim the title of heavyweight champion of the world. One reason for the twenty-plus year space between championships for black boxers was the negative public sentiment surrounding Johnson’s celebrity image. Joe Louis had a different personal style, openly noting his humble beginnings, and rarely displaying the self-assured bravado that made Johnson both loved and hated. While still the heavyweight champion, Louis enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he continued boxing and was honored for decades for his achievements. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Professional boxing was not the only sport that forced the segregation of athletes of color from the so-called mainstream sport; in fact, Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson was world-famous for breaking the color barrier in our country’s national pastime. Throughout the late 1800s, African-Americans played baseball with white players in amateur settings (such as military or college teams) as well as in professional clubs. However, at the turn of the century, Jim Crow laws forcing racial segregation stopped the practice. At first black players formed their own teams and traveled from place to place, like Jack Johnson, looking for and taking on any team who would play them. But by the 1920s, a more organized system came into being as several established teams in the Midwest formed under a new structure, and the Negro National League was born. More leagues were formed around the country, and the Negro League thrived for decades with talented players and a strong fan base. In 1945, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruited Jackie Robinson to be the first black player in Major League Baseball in the modern era, and in 1947, Robinson made his debut. Robinson endured taunts and threats from fans and from some white players who refused to take the field with him. Yet his talent on the field proved that he belonged on the national stage with the other stars of the game at the time. Robinson won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards and was hailed as heroic for his athleticism as well as his strong character in the face of bigotry.
Other professional sports had their own Jack Johnsons and Jackie Robinsons who had to face prejudice, segregation, racism, and even gender bias in their careers as they worked towards being integrated into whites-only or males-only systems. Here are a few names of pioneers in professional sports who broke barriers of one sort or another in their quest for inclusion and integration.
Kenny Washington was the first black player in the National Football League, joining the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Washington insisted that his fellow UCLA football Bruin Woody Strode also be invited to the team, and both men played that season. Washington’s career in the NFL lasted only three years due to injuries that sidelined him. An interesting side note is that Washington was also a baseball standout for the Bruins, carrying a better batting average than his successor as shortstop at UCLA—Jackie Robinson. And Robinson made a name for himself, along with Washington and Strode, on the football field for UCLA, a school where sports were more integrated than many college programs at the time. Though Washington’s name is not the household word that Robinson’s is, his legacy is recognized as paving the way for others to follow. Washington as yet has not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Family members, friends, teammates, fans, and members of the press have been promoting Washington for such an honor, long overdue.
Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the National Hockey League, being called up by the Boston Bruins in 1958 to replace an injured player. O’Ree, who was born in Canada, identified that he endured more racial taunts in the United States early in his career than he did while playing teams in Canada. Though he only played two games his first year in the league, he returned in 1961 and played over 40 games for the Bruins. After leaving the NHL, he continued to play hockey in the minor league system, displaying remarkable skill on the ice. Even more remarkable was that in a sport where the action is quick and precision of play high, O’Ree played nearly blind in one eye, rarely telling others about the hockey injury that took his sight in his right eye in 1956. Though doctors at the time told him his injuries would limit his abilities, O’Ree’s commitment to being a professional hockey player led him to double his efforts and ultimately be the man who broke the color barrier in the NHL.
Althea Gibson was the first person of color to compete in the United States National Championships in tennis in 1950. Her celebrated career included ascending into 19 majors finals and winning 11 titles, including five singles titles from matches in the U.S. Nationals, the French Championship, and Wimbledon. As a teenager, she played for the American Tennis Association, an organization established for black players as the equivalent of the whites-only United States Lawn Tennis Association. Gibson took the sport by storm, drawing notice not only of black athletes, but also white players, too. Alice Marble, a four-time U.S. National singles title holder, lobbied for Gibson to be included in the U.S. National competition, writing for a tennis magazine, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” Gibson’s entry into the competition and her first-round victory were historic. She later broke the color barrier at Wimbledon, and in 1957, with her presence on the tennis court now acknowledged as championship material, Gibson made the covers of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was the first woman to make the cut to play in the previously all-male Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour events. Athletic from her youth, Didrikson qualified for five Olympic track and field events in 1932; however, as a woman, she was only allowed to compete in three of those five. She was a gold medalist in hurdles and javelin and a silver medalist in high jump. After the Olympics, Didrikson found a new sport that attracted her, golf, and made the cut to play in the Los Angeles Open, a PGA Tour event, in 1938, becoming the first woman to do so. Similar to Jack Johnson, she was competitive and spoke with bravado of her athletic talents, often making her the target of those who thought she did not belong in the sports world. She met with derision for her athleticism, and faced open criticism of her sexuality, until she married wrestler George Zaharias and modified her public persona to be more feminine. After her untimely death from cancer in 1956, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was honored posthumously with the Bob Jones award, the United States Golf Association’s highest award, for sportsmanship.