February is Black History Month, a time when we celebrate the many contributions of black Americans.
In sports, lots of kids know about Jackie Robinson. While it’s hard to believe, there was a time when blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball and other sports. Robinson became the first black player when he joined the Brooklyn (later Los Angeles) Dodgers in 1947.
But there were other athletes who were pioneers, just like Robinson. I know because I read a cool book, “Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events,” by Jessie Carney Smith. Here are some things I found out.
Actually, Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black major leaguer. He played for the Toledo Blue Hens in 1884. Shortly after that, however, the major leagues banned black players.
Black teams were playing baseball from the beginning. The first known game between two black teams from different cities was in 1867, when the Brooklyn Uniques played the Philadelphia Excelsiors. Don’t you love those team names?
The National Basketball Association (NBA) began with the 1946-47 season. The first black player to appear in an NBA game was Earl Lloyd, who played for the old Washington Capitols in 1950. Lloyd, who grew up in Alexandria, went on to play eight more seasons for the Syracuse Nationals and Detroit Pistons.
The first black head coach in the NBA was Bill Russell. As a player, he had led the Boston Celtics to nine NBA championships in his first 10 seasons. Then in 1966, Russell became the team’s player-coach — both coaching the team and playing center! He led Boston to two more championships in the next three years.
John Baxter Taylor Jr. was the first black Olympic gold medalist. He ran on the United States’ 4x400 meter relay team in 1908. They called Taylor “Doc” because he earned a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.
Alice Coachman was the first black woman gold medalist in track and field. Coachman won the high jump at the 1948 Olympics.
Long before Venus and Serena Williams, there was Althea Gibson. She was the first black woman to win a major tennis title when she won the French Open in 1956. Gibson also won two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens. Gibson retired from tennis and in 1964 became the first black golfer on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.
There are lots more: The first black driver at the Indianapolis 500 (Willy T. Ribbs); the first black Heisman Trophy winner (Ernie Davis); the first black coach to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (John Thompson at Georgetown); the first black coach to win the NCAA women’s basketball tournament (Carolyn Peck at Purdue); the first black player in the National Hockey League (William Eldon O’Ree).
So you see, while Jackie Robinson was an important first, he certainly wasn’t the only first.