Sports & Race Happy Jackie Robinson Day: Let’s Remember The 6 Closest Equivalents To Jackie In Other Sports
When it comes to breaking down barriers, nobody touches Jackie Robinson. Number 42 joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, well before the Supreme Court overturned the
Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that had allowed segregation in the United States. Breaking the color barrier in baseball was a particularly daunting task, as “America’s pastime” was one of the country’s most beloved sports, and part of that appeal was the perceived “pureness” of the game. That’s what makes Robinson so important: He took on an incredible challenge in perhaps the toughest setting to do so, and he not only succeeded– he excelled.
There is no one quite like Jackie Robison for America’s other favorite sports, for a number of reasons. But it still took great courage and conviction to be the first black player in the NBA, NFL, NHL, the PGA and even NASCAR. Let’s look back and remember these individuals on Jackie Robinson Day.
1.NBA: Earl Lloyd
The honor of signing the first NBA contract may go to Nathan "Sweetwater" Clifton, but Big Cat was the first to actually play in a game, doing so on Oct. 31, 1950 for the Washington Capitols. He was one of four African-Americans to play in the NBA that season, but that season's schedule gave Lloyd the honor of being first. He went on to play for the Syracuse Nationals (becoming the first African-American to win an NBA championship with them) and the Detroit Pistons, whom he also coached in the 1970s. [
2.NFL 1a: Fritz Pollard
An outstanding runner, Fritz Pollard joined the Akron Pros in 1920 and led them to the NFL (APFA) Championship that year. He was even the team's co-head coach beginning in 1921, making him the league's first black coach. After serving as player and coach for a number of NFL teams, Fritz, co-barrier breaker Bobby Marshall and the other seven black NFL players at the time, were removed from the league and never returned. [
3.NFL 1b: Bobby Marshall
In the APFA's inaugural year, Bobby Marshall joined Pollard as the only black players in the league which later became the NFL. But Marshall was already known for a number of firsts by 1920, including the first African American to play in what is now the Big Ten. He also competed in baseball, ice hockey, boxing and track. [
4.NHL: Willie O'Ree
Fitting that the first black NHL player should come from Canada. The right winger was called up by the Boston Bruins to replace an injured player, and made his debut on Jan. 18, 1958 despite being almost completely blind in one eye (he kept the injury a secret). Referred to as the Jackie Robinson of his sport, O'Ree was quoted as saying, regarding the jeers he got playing in the U.S., "It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine." [
5.PGA: John Shippen Jr.
John Shippen Jr. and his friend, Shinnecock Native American Oscar Bunn, entered the second U.S. Open in 1896. Despite threats by white players to boycott the tournament, the Open went on as planned, with Shippen finishing in the top 10 and winning $10. He went on to compete in five more Opens and was granted posthumous membership into the PGA in 2009. There were no other black golfers to compete in the U.S. Open until Terry Rhodes in 1948 -- Rhodes is now regarded as the first professional black golfer, though we give incredible props to Shippen, who had to register as a Shinnecock just to compete in the 19th century. [
6.NASCAR: Wendell Scott
After building up a reputation by winning stock car racers in Virginia, Wendell Scott is said to have obtained a NASCAR license in 1953, making him the first black driver to do so. He is, to this day, the only black driver to win a race in what is currently the Sprint Cup Series. Despite battles with NASCAR's administration and with bigotry, Scott's determination and skill won him many fans by the time he retired in 1973. [