Celebrating Black History: Black Pioneers in Sports

By David McGuire 

Sports have the power to impact society in a positive way. Whether it is amateur or professional, sports can play a tremendous role in economics, politics, and culture. Sports have brought us some of our proudest moments in history; it brings people together. Sports also has made a major impact in the black community. Black athletes have been some of the stalwarts of our community by giving us hope and opening doors through their athletic gifts. Today, we celebrate black history by honoring the black pioneers in sports. 

Let’s begin with America’s favorite pastime – baseball. There was a time in history when Major League Baseball (MLB) did not allow blacks to play. That all changed in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson later went on to become the first black person to win league MVP in 1949. In 1962, he was the first black person to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his MLB number was retired. Throughout history, blacks continued to break barriers in baseball.  The first year the award was given, Willie Mays, known as the ‘Say Hey Kid,’ was the first black person to win The Rawlings Gold Glove Award, given to the MLB player with exemplary field experience.  Don Newcombe was the first black person to win the Cy Young award for best pitcher and Buck O’Neil was the first black person to be named a Major League Baseball coach. 

The Olympics has also seen its share of successful black athletes being. In 2002, Vonetta Flowers became the first black person to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Four years later, Speed Skater Shani Davis became the first black person for Team USA to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics. John Taylor is the first black athlete in track and field to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Jesse Owens is the most famous black track and field athlete. He won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games. 

Although baseball is known as America’s favorite pastime, basketball is one of America’s most popular sports. The majority of NBA players today are black; however, the black athletes we know today in the NBA would not have obtained their opportunity if it had not been for those that came before them. It was a three-man tandem that broke the NBA color barrier. Chuck Cooper was the first black person to be drafted by the Boston Celtics. Nat Clifton was the first to sign a contract when he signed with the New York Knicks. Finally, Earl Lloyd was the first to appear in a game when he played for the Capitols. Blacks continued to make history in basketball with Wayne Embry becoming the first black man to be an NBA General Manager in 1972 with the Milwaukee Bucks Bill Russell was the first black coach in 1966 and the first to win an NBA championship in 1968. In 1975, he went on to become the first black to be elected into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2003, Robert Johnson became the first black owner in the NBA when he bought the Charlotte Bobcats. 

We continue to celebrate countless black athletes who have made an impact in other sports. In tennis, you have Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams. They all revolutionized the sport and made it more appealing and attractive for blacks to not only watch but to also follow. Jack Johnson became the first black to win the heavyweight title in 1908. His title victory opened the door for Muhammad Ali, who is widely considered not just a great black boxer, but the greatest boxer of all time. He not only changed sports, but he also changed society with his political and social activism. 

I can’t imagine being able to turn on the TV without seeing Serena Williams compete in tennis, or LeBron James dominate on the basketball court. There was a time where black athletes were not allowed to share the tennis court or the basketball court with white athletes. Because of pioneers who paved the way, black athletes today are able to blossom into the greatest athletes in their particular sports such as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. They also helped solidify the place of black athletes in the history of sports. These athletes not only make history in sports, but many of them will go on to the change the world.