The 15: Racial Barriers Broken In Sports

By Dave Lomonico

It has often been said that sports are ahead of society when it comes to hot-button issues such as race relations, such as when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1945. Every April 15 — the day Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers in 1947 — Major League Baseball recognizes him with a special day. In honor of Jackie Robinson Day, here is a list of the most impactful moments when racial barriers were broken throughout sports history, with the Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman claiming the No. 1 spot.

1. Jackie Robinson Breaks The Color Barrier (Oct. 30, 1945) — Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey’s so-called “great experiment” remains one of the most important decisions in history as far as race relations are concerned. When Kansas City Monarchs second baseman Jackie Robinson inked his name on a Dodgers contract, thus becoming the first African-American to join a Major League Baseball team during the modern era, he not only paved the way for blacks in baseball, but he became a national symbol of racial equality. If not for Robinson’s unrelenting character in the face of death threats from fans, beanballs from opposing pitchers and cold shoulders wherever he went, the plan may well have failed.

2. Jesse Owens Smashes Olympic Records (Aug. 9, 1936) — Third Reich commander Adolf Hitler wanted to use the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, to support his idea that Aryan athletes were superior. But Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter from Alabama, rained on Hitler’s parade by breaking three world records and earning four gold medals, in the 100-meter dash (10.3 seconds), 200 dash(20.7 seconds), 4-by-100 relay (39.8 seconds) and long jump (26-8 1/4 feet).

3. The Human Rights Salute (Oct. 16, 1968) — After finishing first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist as the United States national anthem played. The two, along with Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist who shared the podium, wore jackets adorned with human rights badges. The gesture came during a period of tense civil unrest in the United States and was an overt statement about the current state of race relations in American society.

4. Cassius Clay Becomes Muhammad Ali (Feb. 26, 1964) — A day after claiming the heavyweight boxing championship during an upset of Sonny Liston, Clay declared he would be joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Three years later, Ali made political headlines once again when he resisted the draft on religious grounds during the Vietnam War. There had been other black athletes who had railed against the system before Ali, but few of them had the worldwide podium he did.

5. Texas Western’s All-black Lineup (March 19, 1966) — Texas Western men’s basketball coach Don Haskins started five blacks during the 1966 season, becoming the first coach to do so. Then, during the ’66 NCAA championship game at Maryland’s Cole Field House, Haskins used the national stage to do it again. In front of an all-white crowd — some of whom had confederate flags and chanted obscenities during the game — all-white referees and an all-white Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp, Texas Western came away with a 72-65 victory.

6. South African Rugby Team Claims 1995 World Cup (June 24, 1995) — For more than 40 years, South Africa had operated under an apartheid system, with minority whites dominating the black majority in the political sector. The country suffered through major upheaval, even as apartheid ended in 1993. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, during which the South African Springboks defeated the New Zealand All Blacks, 15-12, helped ease some of the tension between the two sides.

7. The New Home Run King (April 8, 1974) — Henry Aaron fell one home run short of tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 jacks during the 1973 season. Before the ’74 season, Aaron received death threats and hate mail from fans who couldn’t stand to see an African-American as the home-run king. So bad was the vitriol that an editor at the Atlanta Journal actually penned Aaron’s obituary that offseason in case he was in fact killed. But Aaron survived the winter, and he hit home run No. 715 April 8, 1974, in front of 53,775 people in Atlanta.

8. Louis Knocks Out Schemling (June 22, 1938) — With Nazi Germany rising in power and Hitler’s political and racial beliefs becoming well known throughout the world, the bout between African-American Joe Louis and German native Max Schemling was more than just a boxing match. Although Schemling was no Nazi, he came to represent fascism, while Louis became a symbol for democracy. Louis took 124 seconds to knock out Schemling, and became a rare African-American idol during an era of segregation.

9. Tiger Woods Wins The Masters (April 13, 1997) — Augusta National, site of the Masters, had not allowed an African-American player on its course until 1975 and didn’t allow African-Americans to join the club until 1990. But in April 1997, a 21-year-old Tiger Woods became the youngest player ever to win the Masters with a 270 — one stroke shy of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time course record. The resounding victory thrust Woods into the spotlight and helped debunk certain notions surrounding African-Americans in golf.

10. Jack Johnson Is First Black Heavyweight Champ (Dec. 26, 1908) — The former Confederacy operated under the Jim Crow laws from 1876 until they were outlawed in 1965, which meant African-Americans were treated like inferior citizens in public settings. One of the first black athletes to defy Jim Crow laws was Jack Johnson, who knocked out Canadian Tommy Burns during the 14th round for the heavyweight title of the world. To the chagrin of many whites, Jackson held that championship for the next seven years.

11. Ernie Davis Wins The Heisman (Dec. 6, 1961) — A three-time All-American, Ernie Davis followed in the footsteps of fellow Syracuse alum Jim Brown by running rampant throughout his four-year college football career. There were plenty of great black football players before Davis, but none of them had ever been bestowed with a Heisman. In 1961, Davis edged out Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson for the award, giving black athletes hope that they too could claim college football’s most prestigious award.

12. It’s All About The Shoes (March 1985) — Michael Jordan didn’t just start a marketing phenomenon when he signed a five-year, $2.5 million deal with Nike in 1985 to launch the Air Jordan shoe line. His meteoric rise in the advertizing industry showed that black athletes — even those that played a city sport such as basketball — could indeed rise to the top of the pop-culture world. After Jordan, NBA players such as Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James all capitalized with product-pushing deals.

13. Yao Ming Bridges The Gap (June 26, 2002) — A predestined Hall of Famer before the Houston Rockets selected him with the No. 1 overall pick during the 2002 NBA Draft, Yao Ming didn’t live up to the hype as a 7-foot-6 sensation from China. Even so, Ming’s mere presence in the NBA spurred Yao mania in the People’s Republic, thus making an altogether American game popular in the eastern realm. On top of that, Ming’s rise gave hope to young Chinese athletes, who one day aspired to play in the NBA as well.

14. Gibson Is Jackie Robinson Of Tennis (1956) — Athea Gibson was the first African-American to achieve star status in tennis, and in 1956 she became the first black to win a Grand Slam when she claimed the French Open Title. She was twice voted the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year and won 11 Grand Slams, both in singles and doubles play. In 1971, she was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Gibson opened the doors for African-Americans in tennis and served as an inspiration for future black female stars such as Venus and Serena Williams.

15. Ichiro Takes MLB By Storm (April 1, 2002) — Other Japanese baseball players had suited up in the United States before Ichiro Suzuki’s arrival in Seattle in 2002, but they didn’t have as much success. Ichiro broke records for most hits during a single season (262) and consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits (10). He disproved the theory that Japanese players couldn’t excel in Major League Baseball, and, as a result, many MLB teams began investing more time and money in Asian baseball.

Issue 184: April 2013


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