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Community Advocacy Organization

Black Athletes That Broke the Color Barrier in Sports

Black Athletes That Broke the Color Barrier in Sports

Every sports record book should have asterisks riddled throughout the pages. How can we compare the game’s legendary names to the players in the sport today when athletes from yesteryear didn’t go against the top competition? Who knows how long it would have continued if it wasn’t for these Black athletes that broke the color barrier in sports?

William O’Ree (NHL)

The NHL is a diverse sport when it comes to its international appeal. You could throw a dart on a map and find an NHL player from there. However, the game is predominantly white, with nearly 97 percent of its active players Caucasian. Shockingly, there are only 26 Black players in the NHL, which should displease William O’Ree, the first Black professional hockey player.

O’Ree’s first stint in the league only lasted two games, but fortunately, his second go around three years later saw him in 43 games for the Boston Bruins, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists. It took 13 years for another Black player to hit the ice.

Woody Strode & Kenny Washington (NFL)

Even though the NFL had a few Black players in the early 1920s, they didn’t have another for 20 years until World War II threw a massive wrench in the professional sports world. Many of the game’s best players hung up their cleats to fight for the U.S. overseas, leaving sports leagues short on players. The NFL responded by opening its doors for all, which was good news for Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.

Washington and Strode were teammates at UCLA before they entered the NFL, so their transition to the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t too much of a culture shock. The back of their football card may lack the statistics of a legendary player, but their impact on the NFL paved the road for legends like Jim Brown to dominate the sport.

Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, & Earl Lloyd (NBA)

The trio played a critical role in changing the NBA in 1950. Although the Boston Red Sox were the last team to have a Black player (Pumpsie Green) on their roster, the city did right with O’Ree in the NHL and when the Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper. The Duquesne star played for the C’s for four years before finishing his career with the Fort Wayne Pistons two years later.

Clifton was the first African American player to sign an NBA contract, leading the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals. Lloyd was the first to step foot on the court as a member of the Washington Capitols on Halloween.

Jackie Robinson & Larry Doby (MLB)

Before football took control of the country, baseball was the most popular in the history of American team sports. The Brooklyn Dodgers were looking for a player to change the game and found that with Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, Robinson battled the Boston Braves, with Robinson playing first base and hitting second. Robinson, who was a teammate of Strode and Washington on the UCLA football team, went 0-3 with one run scored.

Less than three months after Robinson integrated the game, Larry Doby joined Cleveland to become the first African American player in the American League. Both players are rightfully in the Hall of Fame, even if it took too long for Doby (1998) to get the nod.

Remember, these Black athletes that broke the color barrier in sports put into perspective how vital and brave it was for these men to play in the country’s four major professional sports leagues. While things have improved since then, there is still plenty of work to do.

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