The Final Whistle

    Unheralded African-American Sports Icons

    More stories from Jon Fortier

    The Final Whistle
    May 15, 2019

    Throughout the history of professional sports, there have been several prominent African-American athletes that have changed the face of the industry. There are the well-known icons such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Tiger Woods, but there are also many that have flown under the radar.

    Before Muhammad Ali, there was Jack Johnson. The Galveston Giant rose to fame during the Jim Crow era and knocked out Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first black heavyweight champ. In 1913, Johnson was convicted for violating the Mann Act on charges that he transported a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He then skipped bail and left the country, only to come back in 1920 to turn himself in. Johnson served 10 months of a one-year sentence before being released. He fought professionally until he was 60 years old and then died in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68. With an overall record of 73 wins, 13 losses and 10 draws, he was inducted into the boxing hall of fame in 1954. It is fair to say, had Jack Johnson not broken through the color barrier, then there may have never been a boxer like Ali.

    Jackie Robinson may have started it all when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1947 as the first African-American baseball player in the National League, but there were many players after him that have their own spot in baseball history. In the same year, the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, who became the second African-American player in the MLB and the first in the American League. Doby went on to become a seven-time all-star at center field.

    There was also another Brooklyn Dodger that made history in the African-American community. Don Newcombe won rookie of the year in 1949 and became the first black pitcher to win the Cy Young award in its inaugural year of 1956. In that same year, Newcombe also won the National League MVP award. Newcombe is one of two players to win all three of these awards in baseball history. Newcombe died Feb. 19 at the age of 92.

    On the managerial side of baseball, there may not be a bigger unsung hero than Frank Robinson. After a distinguished career in the MLB that spanned 20 years across five teams, Frank Robinson was named the first African-American manager in the majors on April 8, 1974 as a part of the Cleveland Indians. Robinson went on to win 1,065 games across 20 years of managing. He died of bone cancer on Feb. 9 at the age of 83. 

    Then there is golf. The icon most commonly associated with African-Americans in golf is Tiger Woods, but again, there would probably be no Tiger Woods without the people before him that helped break the color barrier. Charlie Sifford is commonly referred to as the Jackie Robinson of golf. He became the first black player to earn a PGA tour card in 1961. Sifford went on to win the Greater Hartford Open Invitational in 1967, the first tour event won by a black player.

    While this only scratches the surface of unheralded African American icons in professional sports, it serves as a reminder that before greatness there was hardship. These pioneers that helped break the color barrier are equally as important as the legends that we know and love today.

    Fortier can be reached at [email protected].