Meet… Bill Russell

“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one. The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”

Bill Russell not only revolutionized the game of basketball with his height and shot blocking abilities, but he also drastically altered the role of the black athlete before going on to become the NBA’s first black head coach. When Russell first entered the league, there were only 15 other African Americans playing professional basketball. Racism and prejudice still existed in organizations, and often logistics such as lodging and food were made difficult due to segregated establishments. Throughout his career, Russell remained outspoken and opinionated, attacking these issues and becoming a vocal role model for black athletes in America. Ultimately, he would become one of the NBA’s greatest champions, as well as one of its greatest men.

Bill Russell

Like so many African Americans of his generation, Bill Russell was born into poor financial circumstances in the rural South, although his family eventually moved west to California in pursuit of better jobs and opportunities. As he grew older and taller, Russell began playing basketball, a game in which he showed initial promise despite his awkward height on the court. He would go on to play college basketball at the University of San Francisco, the only school that offered him a scholarship. Bill didn’t care though; he was just excited to go to college and have the opportunity to escape the racism and poverty of his childhood. While at USF, Russell emerged as a dominant force on the court, averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. He also introduced vertical defense and smothering shot blocking to the game of basketball, two aspects that define the game today. Eventually, he would go on to lead his school to two NCAA national championships, becoming a first team All-American and Final Four MVP along the way.

Bill Russell 3

Russell’s success in college basketball was not without its dark moments, however. Racism still existed throughout the country, and it manifested itself several times throughout his collegiate career. Notable instances include a game in Oklahoma City in which none of the city’s hotels would put up Russell and his fellow black teammates, as well as the time before a tournament game in which the fans yelled “Globetrotters” at the players and threw coins at them. Russell didn’t let this deter him, however, and he continued to work hard to become the best player he could. He eventually was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he would go on to become a forceful player and champion.

Russell entered the NBA in 1956, a time in which black athletes were being thrust into the political spotlight amidst the chaos of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Bill didn’t underestimate this significance, either. “It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell wrote in the 1960s. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.” He was never afraid to speak his mind, and did what no one else had previously dared to do when he called out the league on its lack of diversity. He also travelled to Africa several times throughout his career, seeking to reestablish his roots and form a connection to his heritage. Perhaps most notable, however, was the fact that Russell and his fellow black Celtics teammates boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky after a local restaurant refused to seat them. This bold and unprecedented move was one of the first times that black athletes had called attention to the discrimination they faced and marked a change in the role of the black athlete.

bill-russell-2

Russell went on to lead his Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, establishing a dominant league dynasty. He also became the player-coach of the Celtics in 1966, thus marking the first time an African American had been named the head coach of an NBA team. This accomplishment occurred nearly 16 years after the league had first integrated its players, a remarkably long time given the nature of integration in society and other sports. Russell led his team to a final title in 1969 before retiring from the game, leaving behind a legacy of greatness in which he redefined the nature of basketball with his height and shot blocking strategies. His most important contribution, however, was the role he played in giving African Americans power and a voice in professional sports, as well as the strides he made in finally breaking the color barrier of NBA management and coaching.

 

Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “Bill Russell, Civil Rights Hero and Inventor of Airborne BasketballCeltics.” Bleacher Report. N.p., 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.

Meet… Fritz Pollard

“You had to be tough as nails to play in that league. And that went double if you were black, because they really came after us.”

In 1919, when Fritz Pollard first began playing football in the NFL, sports was one of only a few opportunities for African Americans to advance their social and economic status. He may not have been the first black man to play professional football, but he certainly was one of the most influential of his time, emerging as a dominant force in the quest to keep the NFL integrated. Throughout his career, he continued to struggle to allow African Americans to retain their rights to play the game of football at the highest possible level. His pioneering efforts had a lasting impact that helped delay the eventual segregation of the NFL, and through Fritz Pollard’s unparalleled dedication and love of football, African Americans were able to define their place in the sport before they were ultimately forced out.

Pollard was born in 1894 into a middle class family outside Chicago. Like his three older brothers, Fritz emerged as a football star once he reached high school. It was as a student and athlete of his predominately white school that Pollard first learned how to deal with the discrimination and racial prejudice he received from his fellow students and athletic opponents. Although he excelled in baseball and track as well, he decided to focus on football in college, presuming that he would have more opportunities in the sport as an African American. After bouncing around from several colleges, he eventually ended up at Brown University where he joined the football team. At first, things weren’t easy. Pollard was ostracized by his white teammates and targeted on the practice field. However, he endured this blatant racism and ultimately emerged as the star of the Brown football squad.

After proving himself to be one of the most talented halfbacks in the country, Pollard went on to become the first African American to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl on January 1st, 1916. The following year, he elevated the Brown team even more, leading them to consecutive victories over heavily favored Harvard and Yale. His performances this year were so great, in fact, that he was named as a first team All-American, the second black player ever to receive this honor and the first to do so as a member of the back field. Due to these accomplishments, Pollard began to receive recognition from various civil rights groups and black organizations, traveling from city to city along the East Coast to accept awards and accolades. Unfortunately, he also began to neglect his studies, and the following season he was ruled academically ineligible to compete on the Brown football team.

Because of his ineligibility, Pollard entered military service for a few years before returning to football. When he did return, however, it was as a member of the Akron Pros professional football team in 1919. The next year the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later the National Football League. That year, Pollard assumed some of the coaching duties, and behind his powerful backfield play and the eastern formations he had brought from college, the Pros went on to win the APFA championship. Despite this success, Pollard still suffered as an African American in an all-white league. Indeed, when he first began playing, he was one of only two black players in professional football, and life was certainly not easy because of it. On the road, he was not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He sustained verbal and physical abuse from Akron’s fans, who he claimed were just as prejudiced as anyone from the South. He even had to dress for home games at a local cigar store and arrive at the stadium just before game time in order to protect his safety.

In 1921, Pollard was named co-coach of the Akron Pros, making him the first African American coach in NFL history. During this time, he emerged as one of the best players in professional football alongside Jim Thorpe, a football legend. He went on to play for several other teams in the league, often acting as both a coach and player while remaining one of the most dominant men on the field. During this time, more African Americans began to enter the league, many of whom were recruited by Pollard himself. Because of his efforts to help more blacks play professional football, Fritz was also able to organize an interracial all-star game in Chicago that showcased a team made up of the finest African American players in the league against an all white squad. His purpose was clear: to showcase the talent of black athletes and promote integrated competition in sports.

Later, as the head coach of the Hammond Pros in 1925, Pollard brought in three black players who, alongside his own play, made Hammond the most integrated team in the NFL. This year would mark the height of African American participation in the NFL before growing discrimination would cause the number of black football players to begin to fall, until there was only one African American player in 1927. Dismayed by these numbers, Pollard went on to found an all-star black professional team in 1928 called the Chicago Black Hawks. This team played games against all-white professional teams before folding due to Depression. They were able to prove that interracial play was possible without the ugly incidents that had marred NFL competition between whites and blacks.

Eventually, a ban on African American participation in the NFL was passed in 1934, and so in response Pollard formed and coached an all-black professional Harlem football team, the Brown Bombers. Like the Black Hawks, the Bombers played against all-white professional teams, usually dominating behind the strength of their all-star African American talent. With his team soundly defeating NFL team after NFL team, Pollard was able to prove that blacks were talented enough to play in professional leagues, thus challenging the NFL’s race ban and bringing the issue of segregation to the forefront of professional football. After resigning as head coach of the Bombers, Pollard continued to oppose the NFL ban and remain a prominent advocate for integration in football.

Sadly, the immense contributions of Fritz Pollard are often regarded as merely a footnote in the history of the NFL, but in reality they were so much more. As a player, he helped pave the way for his fellow African Americans to enter the sport, and as a coach he maintained integration by recruiting other black players to join his teams. Once he left the NFL, he continued his advocacy by organizing first the Chicago Black Hawks and then the Brown Bombers, two teams that proved African Americans had just as much a place in professional football as anyone else. Indeed, the Bombers enabled blacks to continue to play against professional teams after they had been excluded from the NFL due to the league’s race ban. Ultimately, Fritz Pollard was a man whose extensive contributions to the game of football helped promote integration and establish a place for African Americans to participate at the professional level.

 

Works Cited:

Brooks, Scott, and Charles Kenyatta Ross. Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality on and off the Field. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Meet… Dean Smith

“I do believe in praising that which deserves to be praised.”

Dean Smith was not black. He was not an athlete. He did not, contrary to popular belief, integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference. He did, however, use sports as an instrument for social change, launching protests and discussions with not only his words, but his actions as well. As the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Smith was able to lead the school into a new era of progress and equality while simultaneously changing the face of basketball in both the ACC and the entire country.

Dean Smith’s dedication to civil rights and equality presented itself early on, when he was a high school basketball player in Topeka, Kansas. Upset by the division between his high school’s prominent all-white basketball team and the all-black team that was created due to segregation, Smith went to the principal and demanded the two teams be merged in order to allow the best possible talent to be allowed to play, regardless of race. After much deliberation, as well as increased pressure on behalf of Smith, the principal eventually relented, and the following season saw three African Americans on the Topeka High junior varsity team. Two years later, Bill Peterson made his debut as the first black basketball player at Topeka.

This commitment to change characterized Dean Smith’s later career as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. When he first took this coaching job, Chapel Hill still had segregated restaurants and facilities. The ACC was all white. Amongst this atmosphere of racial division, Smith soon realized that change was necessary. He understood that as the coach of the college’s basketball team, which in North Carolina is almost like its own religion, he had a certain power that came with that position. Thus, in the early 60’s, Dean Smith, Bob Seymour- a local minister and lifelong friend of Smith’s- and a black Chapel Hill student all arrived at The Pines, a local high end restaurant that was adamant about refusing African American patrons. As Seymour later said, “We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant.”

Perhaps his most well known contribution to civil rights was his recruitment of Charlie Scott, one of the first black students to play in the ACC and the first African American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. In recruiting Scott, Dean Smith literally changed the face of UNC and helped integrate the entire ACC. Just as he had done at Topeka High, Smith challenged sports teams to include the best overall talent available, not simply the best white talent.

Dean Smith knew that with such a prominent position, he had the power to enact the change he desired to see in the world. He helped establish a settlement house in Chapel Hill for low income workers. He demanded that revenue from the basketball program be shared with all the school’s athletic programs, both men’s and women’s. He campaigned for higher wages for domestic workers. Most importantly, however, he brought equality to a city, a school, and a conference that desperately needed it.

 

Works Cited:

Lapchick, Richard. “Dean Smith and a Civil Rights legacy.” ESPN.com. ESPN, 17 May 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/commentary/news/story?page=lapchick/110517>.

Kelley, Steve. “Dean Smith Challenged Chapel Hill’s Old Prejudices.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Newspaper, 29 Mar. 1997. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970329>.

Branch Rickey: How He Integrated Baseball

As we all know, Jackie Robinson was the player who shattered racial barriers when he integrated baseball in 1947. But before he could swing a bat in the major leagues, or even step onto the field for that matter, he had to be signed by someone who believed in equality, who believed that it wasn’t right for America’s sport to be divided by the color of its players’ skin. This man was Branch Rickey, an executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers who initiated the “Noble Experiment” of integration.

In a 1956 speech to the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” in Atlanta, about 9 years after Jackie Robinson began playing in the MLB, Rickey discussed his decision to end segregation in baseball and the factors he found necessary to achieve this, as well as the obstacles he faced along the way. The first of these hurdles was ownership. In order to sign a black player, Rickey knew that he needed to find an owner sympathetic to his cause to allow integration to occur. In the end, he found that owner: himself.

Once he became part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey was able to move on to the next task: finding the right player to break baseball’s color barrier. This person had to not only be a great player, but a great man as well. Rickey spent extensive time and effort scouting the Negro Leagues for one such player. While there were plenty of outstanding black athletes, Rickey needed someone who would be able to endure the discrimination and prejudice he would face as the first black major league player, someone who would not lose his temper or his cool while facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. He wanted “a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.” This man would have to represent his entire race on sport’s biggest stage, and if he failed, the Great Experiment would be destroyed; indeed, integration itself would likely be postponed for another decade. Branch Rickey went looking for a hero, and what he found was Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson was everything Rickey needed and more. Once he found his man, Rickey confronted the next obstacle, feasibility. This included organizing “public relations, transportation, housing, accommodations” etc. These logistics proved extremely difficult in 1940’s segregated America. Countless times, hotels would not accommodate the team or a restaurant would refuse to serve them, and the Brooklyn Dodgers would move on to the next place that would. Ultimately, though, these obstacles did little to deter Rickey from achieving his goal of integrating the MLB.

Rickey was also worried about the reaction of the African American population itself. He knew that such a groundbreaking change would prompt African Americans to almost overdo their celebration of Jackie Robinson and integration, thus furthering the separation between races that Rickey was trying to overcome. He didn’t want celebratory dinners or mass attendances; he didn’t want Jackie Robinson to be an anomaly. He wanted Jackie to be a professional baseball player, just like everyone else in the MLB, whether he be white or black or purple or green. He wanted Jackie to be judged by the power of his swing, not the color of his skin, and he wanted this to apply to both the black and white population of America.

Lastly, the final obstacle that Branch Rickey had to overcome was one that he had very little control over: the reaction of his fellow players on the Brooklyn Dodgers team. In the end, this proved to be a very small problem. Although it was a gradual change, Jackie Robinson’s teammates accepted him in the locker room. Was everyone his best friend? Of course not, but that would have been the case as well had he been white like every other player. But they supported him and respected him, and ultimately, that’s all Branch Rickey could have asked for.

Branch Rickey had a mission. He wanted to integrate baseball, to bring about the equality and acceptance that America was founded upon. He was, in his own words, “completely color-blind”. And, like every man with a mission, he also had a plan. He followed this plan, stuck to it as he dodged blows and jumped hurdles and overcame obstacles, and, against all odds, his Great Experiment worked. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, and the whole country became a little more color-blind. Just like Branch Rickey himself.

 

Works Cited:

Rickey, Branch. “Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” Banquet.” Speech. “The One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” Banquet. Atlanta. 20 Jan. 1956. The Library Of Congress: American Memory. The Library Of Congress. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.

Meet… Frank Robinson

“I always tried to do the best. I knew I couldn’t always be the best, but I tried to be.”

When most people think of groundbreaking African Americans in baseball, the first name that comes to their minds is Jackie Robinson. But what about the other Robinson? What about Frank Robinson, the first African American to serve as manager of a major league team? A pioneering player and manager, Robinson was a man who paved the way for African Americans and other minorities in coaching and managing positions in Major League Baseball, changing the face of baseball for years to come in a manner similar to Jackie Robinson himself.

Before making history as an MLB manager, Robinson first had a stellar playing career that landed him in the Hall of Fame. He was a six time all-star selection and became the only player ever to win the MVP award in both the National and American leagues. He also won the elusive Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs), as well as the World Series MVP when his Baltimore Orioles won the World Series in 1966. Such accomplishments have landed Frank Robinson among the all-time greats of baseball and made him into a playing legend.

Yet, despite this, perhaps his most lasting achievements came not at the plate, but in the dugout. This occurred in 1975, when Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians and became the first black manager in Major League Baseball history. Not only was he the manager of the Indians, however, but he also served as a player during his first two years coaching. In a game that has since seen many black players, but few black managers, Robinson’s achievement stands out as instrumental in breaking the barrier of managerial and coaching positions for African Americans. The influence of Frank Robinson extends not only to baseball, but to all sports. He helped America take strides toward racial equality, and proved that blacks could stand as leaders. In a country that today has an African American president, we might forget that circumstances weren’t always this equal.

Frank Robinson blazed a trail for many African American managers to come, among them Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Ron Washington, and others. He also laid the foundation for other minorities in the sport of baseball, most notably Hispanic and South American. Manny Acta, the former manager of the Cleveland Indians, credits Robinson and fellow Venezuelan manager Felipe Alou for breaking barriers and making a place for himself in the game of baseball. Ultimately, Frank Robinson left baseball as an outstanding Hall of Fame player with multiple honors and records to his name. In the end, however, the title of baseball’s first black manager may be the most groundbreaking one of all.

 

Works Cited:

Bastian, Jordan. “Robinson Powerful Force As Player-Manager.” Indians.com. MLB, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.