Black History Month is about celebrating pioneers who helped shape American culture and contributed to our history as a people. It’s not just about celebrating people we already know much about, it’s also about discovering those who made big steps without much attention.
We all know about Jackie Robinson but do you know who the first Black NBA players were? How about the first Blacks to win an Olympic gold medal? Who was the first Black professional football player?
This week we are going to highlight several of these pioneers. We’ve gone beyond the first player in the four major sports (NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL) with one notable exception so you can have a better appreciation of Black contributions in all sports.
Harry Lew: A Massachusetts native whose family had a rich history of activism, Lew got his start playing for the local YMCA basketball team in 1898 as his team won four state championships. In 1902, he made history as the first Black professional basketball player.
He joined the Pawtucketville Athletic Club of the New England Professional Basketball League and was regarded as their premier defensive player. Despite facing racial taunts from opposing fans, Lew played in the league for three years and after it disbanded, he continued as a player/general manager for local teams well into the 1920’s.
Major Taylor: A name mostly forgotten by sports fans, Taylor was the world’s greatest cyclist at the turn of the 20th century.
The “Black Cyclone” earned his reputation by winning races in Indiana before winning his first professional race in 1896 at Madison Square Garden, a half-mile sprint where he lapped the field. He became internationally known in 1899 when he won the world one-mile cycling championship.
He became the first African-American to be a world champion and the second Black athlete after Canadian bantamweight boxer George Dixon. While shunned by racism in America, he was hailed in France as a celebrity.
John Taylor and William DeHart Hubbard: The history of Black sprinters succeeding in the Olympics starts with these two men and both made history 16 years apart.
Taylor, a native of Pennsylvania, ran the third leg of the medley relay team in the 1908 Summer Olympics in London and became the first Black person to win a gold medal. Sadly, he died five months after the Games but was memorialized in the New York Times as “the world’s greatest Negro runner”
Hubbard followed suit at the 1924 Summer Olympics by winning the long jump and becoming the first Black person to win an individual gold medal. An Ohio native and seven-time Big Ten Conference champion, Hubbard set the long jump world record in 1925.
Ironically, his long jump – 25 feet, 3 1/2 inches – stood as a conference record until Jesse Owens broke it 10 years later.
Fritz Pollard: Pollard already made history as the first Black player to play in the Rose Bowl and be named an All-American in 1916. In 1920, this pioneer added one more notch to his legacy as the first to play in the newly formed National Football League.
Along with Bobby Marshall who joined the Minneapolis Marines, Pollard suited up for the Akron Pros as a tailback and led them to the league’s first championship. The following season, while still with Akron, he became the league’s first Black coach – and perhaps the first professional Black coach in any sport.
Pollard would go on to coach an all-Black professional team, the Chicago Black Hawks, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. His legacy continues in the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes minority hiring in the NFL, and the Fritz Pollard Award, which is given the Black coach of the year and co-sponsored by the Black Coaches Association and Pollard’s alma mater, Brown University.
Charlie Sifford – Let’s put it simply. Without the efforts of Sifford and others, we’d never know who Tiger Woods is.
Sifford got his start as a caddy at 13 and began competing in tournaments organized by Black golfers as a result of the PGA barring Blacks from their events. But like many in his day, he persevered and qualified for several tournaments in the 1950’s despite facing racial abuse.
Technically, his win at the 1967 Greater Hartford Open Invitational was the first by a Black player at a formal PGA Tour event but 10 years earlier, he won the Long Beach Open which was sponsored by the PGA and had several known tour players in it.
He went on to win the PGA Senior’s Championship in 1975 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. It was a fitting tribute for one of golf’s Black pioneers and last year, the Northern Trust Open created the Charlie Sifford Exemption to invite a player who represents promoting diversity in the sport.
Buck O’Neil – There was no greater advocate for the history of the Negro Leagues and few men had the passion for baseball that Buck O’Neil had. Baseball truly lost one of its greatest ambassadors when he died in 2006.
After his playing days were done in the Negro Leagues, O’Neil became a scout for the Chicago Cubs and made history as baseball’s first Black coach in 1962 – not to be confused with Frank Robinson being named baseball’s first Black manager in 1975.
O’Neil would sign future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to his first contract and always lent a helping hand to Black baseball players throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. But it was his tales about the Negro Leagues and unwavering passion for the game that kept him a vital figure until his death.
It’s a crime that he was never inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame but they created a lifetime achievement award named in his honor. A noble gesture but outside of former Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda, there was nobody who served the game better than Buck O’Neil and that’s what makes him a pioneer.
Willy T. Ribbs – Auto racing is something most Blacks perhaps casually watch as it’s crossed into the mainstream but Ribbs made a brief impact nearly three decades ago as a Black racer when the sport was still lilly-White.
In 1983, after brief success in Europe, Ribbs had quite a debut in the Trans-Am Series, winning five races and being named Rookie of the Year. But he could never make the jump into NASCAR despite several attempts to compete, finishing out of qualification in several races.
However, he made history twice. In 1986, he became the first Black person to drive a Formula One car when he test-drove for a Portuguese team. Five years later, he became the first Black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, which also drove in 1993