The impact of Black athletes across the history of sports is an undeniable one, but also one that has not always been accomplished on equal footing. Of the many highs that have been accomplished, there have been just as many –if not more— that have also had to overcome the rules of the times they were accomplished in. This is a look back at many significant firsts, highlights, and noteworthy moments accomplished by Black athletes across the sporting spectrum, as well as the conditions that secured their significance.
Technically, William Edward White was the first Black man to play professional baseball in 1879, but he did so while passing as white. However, it was Walker who did so outright as an African-American, playing catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. He faced the intense racial scrutiny of the time and lasted only one season, becoming the last African-American to appear in the MLB for 63 years.
Born in Jamestown of the Gold Coast (in modern-day Ghana), Wharton became the first Black professional soccer player in the English Professional League. Wharton was a goalie and occasional winger, who made 54 overall appearances across four professional seasons. In 2003, he was elected to the English Football Hall of Fame as a pioneer.
At the peak of the Jim Crow era in America, Johnson emerged as one of the nation’s biggest stars. In 1908, the Galveston, Texas, native beat Tommy Burns to claim the lineal world heavyweight title, via a stoppage in the 14 th round, to become the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, a title he would carry for the next eight years.
Although George Poage was the first African-American Olympian, when he captured two bronze medals in St. Louis four years prior, it was Taylor in 1908 who first reached the top of the podium. Hailing from Washington D.C. and the son of two former slaves, Taylor captured the gold running the third leg of the medley relays, covering 400 meters. In the same year, he would complete his degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1917, while a student at Howard University, Diggs Slowe accomplished what would go on to become a milestone in both African-American and female sports as a whole. In winning the American Tennis Association’s first tournament, she became the first African-American woman to win a major sports title. Diggs Slowe is also notable in Black history for being one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the oldest African-American sorority in American history.
Pollard had a habit of making history throughout the early days of his career. In college, he became both the first African-American football player at Brown and the first to be named to the Walter Camp All-American team. In 1920, along with Bobby Marshall, he became one of the first two African-Americans in the NFL. In his second season, Pollard led the Akron Pros to their first championship and the following season was named their co-head coach, becoming the first African-American coach in pro sports history and was still an active player.
Known mainly by his nickname, ‘Jocko’, Maxwell is widely believed to be the first Black sportscaster in history. He began as a 22-year-old at WNJR in New Jersey and throughout the 1930s interviewed many of the biggest stars in sports. He also was the public address announcer for the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles and would go on to become a prominent scholar on Black baseball. Despite his many accomplishments, there were many times when Maxwell was not paid for his work by white broadcast outlets.
One of the great trailblazers in American history, Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, broke the long-standing color barrier in professional baseball. While his presence in the game changed everything about American sports permanently, his impact within it produced an additional string of substantial firsts as well. He would become baseball’s inaugural winner of the Rookie of the Year award, the first black All-Star, and MVP in 1949, and later, the first Black Hall of Fame inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Barksdale was no stranger to knocking down barriers in basketball. In 1947, during his only season at UCLA, he became the first African-American named to a college basketball All-American team. The following year, he became the first Black player to compete as an Olympian for the United States in basketball, going undefeated in the process. In his second NBA season with the Baltimore Bullets, Barksdale became the first African-American All-Star selection.
Coachman was a dominant amateur competitor, winning 10 consecutive national championships in the high jump from 1939 to 1948. She also captured national championships in the 50- and 100-meter dash, along with the 400-meter relay while a student at the Tuskegee Institute. At the 1948 Olympic Games, she captured the gold in the high jump and became the only American woman to medal at the games. It was an overdue honor, as the cancellations of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics due to World War II caused her to miss the chance at both international competition and a much larger place in history.
The integration of professional basketball was simultaneously accomplished by three individuals. In the 1950 NBA Draft, Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd were all selected and broke into the league in different capacities. Cooper was the first African-American player drafted, going as the first pick in the second round. Due to the season’s schedule, Lloyd was the first to play in a game for the Washington Capitals, while Clifton was the first to sign a contract that season.
Gibson was one of the first women to cross the color barrier in professional sports and became the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam title in tennis when she was victorious in the 1956 French Open. Gibson was also the first Black woman to be ranked #1 in the world in 1957. She would go on to capture a title at each of the Grand Slam tournaments for a total of 11 Grand Slam championships overall. She also competed on the LPGA Tour in 1964, becoming the first woman ever to compete professionally in both tennis and golf.
On the heels of a 27 win season that also saw him named National League MVP, Newcombe became the inaugural winner of the award that has become synonymous with pitching excellence. He would become the first (and one of only two) pitchers to win Cy Young, MVP, and Rookie of the Year honors in his career. Seven years earlier, he became the first African-American starting pitcher in a World Series game.
While Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract in 1950, it was O’Ree who first made it to the ice. On Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree debuted for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first Black player in the league’s history. In his career, O’Ree would play 22 years between the NHL and minors.
At the 1960 Olympic Games, Rudolph became the first woman to capture multiple medals. She individually captured the gold in both the 100 and 200-meter dash and added a third gold as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team. Counting the 1956 Games, Rudolph captured four medals overall and retired as the world record holder in all three of her Gold medal events.
It took 26 years for an African-American to lay claim to a Heisman Trophy, and it was Davis who did so. Following in the footsteps of the great Jim Brown, Davis was twice selected as a consensus All-American, running for a total of 2,386 yards and 20 touchdowns. Davis was selected first in the 1962 NFL Draft and fourth overall in the 1962 AFL draft but was diagnosed with leukemia before playing and died a year later.
During the segregation era of golf, Sifford won the National Negro Open four consecutive times during the 1950s. Sifford fought his way ahead into a full-fledged PGA competition, including a victory at the 1957 Long Beach Open versus PGA Tour competition. In 1961, he finally joined the PGA Tour and six years later captured the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, becoming the first African-American victor in PGA history.
After competing in local circuits in the Virginia area, Scott gained his NASCAR license in 1953, becoming the first black racer to compete within the promotion. He debuted on the Grand National Series level in 1961 and in 1964 won the Jacksonville 200, becoming the first African-American to win at NASCAR’s highest level. He led the race for 27 laps but still had to protest for his win, as the checkered flag was not initially raised to recognize his victory.
Inspired by the journey of Jackie Robinson to the Majors, Ashford embarked on a lengthy climb towards the Major Leagues by umpiring throughout the minors for over a decade in the 1950s. In 1966, he finally was called up to the Majors, where his charismatic style behind the plate made him a hit with fans. In 1967, he became the first Black umpire to work an All-Star Game and in 1970 he earned the same distinction in the World Series, appearing in all five games.
Russell didn't limit his dominance to just his on-court exploits with the Boston Celtics (where he was the league's first Black MVP in 1958). In 1966, he became the first African-American head coach of a major professional sports team in the modern era, when he became the team's player/manager. Two years later, he became the first Black man to coach his team to a championship.
During the 1967 World Series, Gibson pitched Games 1, 4, and 7 for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox. He was utterly dominant along the way, allowing only three runs over 14 hits across three complete-game victories. He ran up a total of 26 strikeouts against only five walks, threw a shutout in Game 4, and even hit a home run in Game 7. All after rallying from a mid-season broken leg from a ball hit off of him in July.
In 1968, Ashe was the first African-American male to become the world’s top ranked tennis player. In the same year, he became the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam singles title at the U.S. Open. He would later gain the same distinction at the Australian Open (1975) and Wimbledon (1975). He remains the only African-American male to hold these distinctions.
While the Black quarterback has finally gained some level of deserved normalcy and prominence in the game, Briscoe was decades ahead of his time. In 1968, he became the first black player in modern football history to start at quarterback, when he did so for the Denver Broncos of the AFL. Briscoe threw 14 touchdowns over five starts on the season and added an additional three scores on the ground. Despite his early success, the ’68 season marked his only as a professional QB before being moved to wide receiver.
In route to leading the New York Knicks to the first of two consecutive NBA Championships, Reed became the first player in league history to win three MVPs in one season. He won All-Star Game MVP with 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Eastern Conference. He then won regular season MVP after averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds per game and leading the Knicks on an 18-game win streak. Finally, he capped the year with NBA Finals MVP after twice topping 35 points and heroically rallying from a severe thigh injury to finish the series.
After completing an 11-year, Hall of Fame career in the 1960s, Embry turned his attention towards executive leadership. He played a major role in bringing Oscar Robertson to Milwaukee to team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which resulted in a title for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. Subsequentially, he promoted to General Manager the next season, making him the first African-American to hold the position in pro sports. He later became the first Black team president and COO with the Toronto Raptors.
Although Buck O'Neill became the first black coach in MLB history in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs, Robinson took it a step further. After a ground-breaking career where he became the first player to be named MVP in both the National and American Leagues, Robinson set his dogged determination on making additional history in the dugout. In 1975 he became the first African-American manager in MLB history when he took over the helm for the Cleveland Indians.
A superstar goalie for the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, Fuhr is responsible for a number of notable firsts for blacks in the NHL. Most notably, he became the first Black player to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1984, the first of five times he would win sport’s greatest trophy. Fuhr is also the first Black goalie in NHL history, the first black recipient of both the Vezina and Jennings Trophies for excellence in the net, and first the black inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
When the Los Angeles Raiders named Shell as their head coach in 1989, he became the first African-American to hold the role in the modern NFL. He was preceded only by Fritz Pollard, who was co-head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection as a player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Shell was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1990 when he guided the Raiders to a 12-4 record and the AFC West championship.
In 1992 Gaston guided the Toronto Blue Jays to the first of two consecutive World Series championships. In the process, he became the first African-American manager to ever win a World Series. Between two terms of managing the Blue Jays between 1989 to 1997 and again from 2008 to 2020, Gaston won 894 games. Gaston has the rare distinction of winning the World Series in every season he reached the postseason in his career.
Years after the contributions of Charlie Sitton and Lee Elder, it was a 21-year-old Woods who finally reached the mountaintop for Black golfers. Woods dominated the field at 1997 Masters, shooting -18 under par for the tournament and winning by a margin of 12 strokes, both setting all-time records. In the process, Woods’ first Major title was the first by a Black golfer in the 63-year history of the tournament and 81-year history of the PGA. It also helped to propel Woods to become the first –and only— Black golfer to ever be ranked #1 in the world shortly thereafter.
Already a world champion kickboxer for multiple international federations, Smith made his way to the young Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion in 1997. At UFC 14, Smith surprisingly defeated heavyweight championship Mark Coleman via unanimous decision to claim the division title. In the process, Smith because the first striker to ever defeat a wrestler of Coleman’s stature in the UFC, further expanding the possibilities of the style clashing –yet blending— combat style MMA has developed into.
Although there have been many great Black executives and owners in sports history, such as Rube Foster and Effa Manley, it was Johnson who made a massive leap forward in the big-money era of professional sports. The founder of BET and first Black billionaire, Johnson bid for and was awarded rights to the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. He was over the team for eight years as majority owner, before selling to Michael Jordan –the second majority-black owner in NBA history— in 2010.
While African-American athletes have long made their marks on the summer games, the Winter Olympics have been slower to see such crossover impact. Flowers carved out her own place in history after transitioning from the world of track and field to bobsledding. Along with Jill Bracken, she captured gold in the two-woman bobsled event in 2002, becoming the first African-American to ever win gold at the Winter Games.
In February of 2002, Williams ascended to #1 in the Women’s Tennis Association, making her the first African-American woman to do so in the Open era (since 1968). Eight years later, along with her sister Serena, she became a part of the first Black Doubles pairing to reach #1 in the world. The duo has won 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles and remains undefeated in Grand Slam finals together.
Following her victory in the 2003 Australian Open, Williams held all four Grand Slam titles in women’s tennis – not only in history but also simultaneously. The feat was dubbed the ‘Serena Slam’ and it also completed her rounding out the feat. She defeated her older sister Venus to claim the title, but also teamed up with her to win the women’s doubles championship at the same tournament. To date, Williams’ 23 career individual Grand Slam titles are the most in history in the Open Era.
When Hamilton signed with McLaren in 2007, he became the first black driver in the 57-year history of the Formula One. He quickly embarked on what would become a record-shattering career, capturing his first pole position and victory at the Canadian Grand Prix in the sixth F1 race, and hasn’t slowed from there. To date, Hamilton has won 7 Formula One Championships and 95 races in his career, both all-time records.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, Douglas became the first African-American to be crowned Individual All-Around Champion in the gymnastics competition. In addition to her individual gold, she also captured the team gold as well as a member of the popular “Fierce Five” women’s team. This made her the first American in history to conquer both competitions in a single Olympics.
Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.