The annual recognition of Jackie Robinson is a great time for reflection and appreciation. Reflection to see how far we’ve come and appreciation to recognize the brave individuals who broke down barriers. The work isn’t done, but through amazing character, strength, and bravery, these individuals were able to pave the way to a more inclusionary society and better sports world.
First Black Professional Baseball Player
Fresh off the heels of Jackie Robinson Day, everyone knows who Jackie Robinson is by now. #42 was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 making him the first MLB player to be officially signed by an MLB team. Jackie was a strong-willed player who fought his way to greatness. He was a fantastic player and a fantastic human. Very few people could endure what he had to throughout his career. That happens to be a common thread everyone on this list shares.
First Black Professional Football Player and Coach
Together with lesser known, Bobby Marshall, Fritz became the first black Pro Football player in 1920. After a very successful football career at Brown, Fritz burst onto the pro scene, quickly establishing himself as one of the best HBs in the league. Only a year later he was named co-head coach while also continuing his service as a star HB. Sadly, the barriers he broke down were short lived as blacks were again banned from the game in 1926. In 2004 Fritz was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
First Black Pro Basketball Player
Together with fellow African Americans, Chuck Cooper, and Nathaniel (Nat) Clifton, he became the first black NBA player in the 50-51 season. Lloyd built a reputation in college as a “complete player”. He was both a feared scorer and defender. He was selected in the ninth round of the NBA draft and played pro ball for multiple teams before retiring in 1960. Like Robinson in baseball, Lloyd was far from being a pacifist. Lloyd was known for very physical play and often ranked among the league leaders in fouls.
First Black Pro Hockey Player
The Canadian-born O’Ree was called up by the Boston Bruins in 1958 making him the very first black pro hockey player (unconfirmed globally but he was the first in North American hockey). After only playing a couple games that season, O’Ree was able to establish himself better in ’61 playing in 43 games. O’Ree was a star in minor league hockey but never a very strong NHL player. Regardless of his impact on the ice his social impact was undeniable. He overcame obstacles (he was secretly near-blind in one eye) and broke barriers despite many racial taunts every step of the way.
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