Every April 15, Major League Baseball goes to great lengths to honor Jackie Robinson on the anniversary of the day, now 75 years ago, when he broke the sport’s color barrier. On that day, every player wears his iconic No. 42, which is otherwise retired across the majors.
Honoring Robinson is a year-round endeavor, too, for MLB and the country at large. In 1987, baseball renamed its rookie of the year awards in his honor. He has been on postage stamps and a commemorative silver dollar. His bust is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. His uniform number became the title of a movie about his life. Posthumously, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal.
His legacy, in other words, is wide-ranging and everlasting.
But there may be no more powerful manifestation of Robinson’s enduring legacy than what happens every time someone breaks a racial barrier in some segment of American life. From that moment on, they are the Jackie Robinson of that discipline.
What other person’s name is attached to a singular, monumental achievement? Tom Brady wins a lot, but there is no Tom Brady of rodeo. There is no Michael Jackson of tennis, no Tom Hanks of hockey.
There are Jackie Robinsons of all sorts of things, though, many of them reaching beyond sports. When Dick Gregory, in the 1960s, became the first Black comedian to gain a foothold in White clubs, he became the Jackie Robinson of comedy. When Charley Pride was granted membership to the Grand Ole Opry, he was forever known as the Jackie Robinson of country music.
Dig deeper and you can find headlines trumpeting the Jackie Robinsons of classical music (Charlie Burrell), Wall Street (Reginald Lewis), journalism (Robert Churchwell Sr.) and high fashion (Patrick Kelly). A story on the CIA’s website touts agent Omego J.C. Ware Jr. as the Jackie Robinson of intelligence.
Nowhere, though, is Robinson’s name invoked more often than in sports — including with the 20 Black athletes, coaches and other legends listed here, who make up just a handful of the Jackie Robinsons of our games. Some of the names are famous; others are obscure. Some followed Robinson by mere months; others blazed their trail just a few years ago.
Seventy-five years from now, there may be a fresh batch of names on this list, but the constant will always be Jackie.
Tidye Pickett never got much recognition for being the first Black woman to compete in an Olympic event — first because she didn’t compete, then because she didn’t finish her race.
Pickett and Louise Stokes were the first Black women to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1932, but they were dealt two humiliating setbacks. First, Babe Didrikson, the legendary athlete and well-documented racist, dumped a bucket of ice water on the bunk beds Pickett and Stokes were sleeping in during the team’s train ride to the Los Angeles Games. Then they were replaced on the 4x100 relay team by White women who turned in slower runs at the U.S. trials. They were spectators as the relay team won gold.
Four years later, Pickett was set to participate in three events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but in the semifinals of the 80-meter hurdles, she stumbled over the second one and broke her foot. Her story became an afterthought when Jesse Owens upstaged Adolf Hitler with a dominant performance that secured four gold medals. Not until 1948 did a Black woman, Alice Coachman, finally secure Olympic gold.
Pickett went on to be a teacher and principal at an East Chicago Heights elementary school that was named for her when she retired. She died at 72 in 1986. — Michael Lee
Kenny Washington long resided in the shadow of Jackie Robinson, but it was the other way around during the year they spent together at UCLA.
Sharing a backfield with Robinson in 1939, Washington led the nation in total offense and helped the Bruins to an undefeated season. Robinson called Washington “the greatest football player I have ever seen.” They played baseball together, too — and Washington was the superior hitter. Within a decade, both broke color barriers, but only one was immortalized.
The Chicago Bears’ George Halas was enamored with Washington and lobbied other NFL owners to lift the “gentlemen’s agreement” banning Black players that had been in place since 1934. But he failed, and it wasn’t until the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946 that Washington got his shot after years of playing semipro football. Washington was one of four Black players to reintegrate pro football that season but the first to sign a contract. He encountered slurs and other players trying to kick him in the helmet. “It’s hell being a Negro,” he told a teammate.
By the time he reached the NFL, Washington was past his prime and recovering from multiple knee surgeries, so he never made much of an impact in three seasons. But his 92-yard touchdown run in his second year remains the longest in Rams history. He died at 52 in 1971. — Michael Lee
Although Jackie Robinson beat him to the major leagues by three months — ensuring that, among other things, 42 (rather than 14) would be retired as a jersey number across MLB — Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League, earned a couple of firsts himself.
By going from the Newark Eagles to the Cleveland Indians, Doby, 23 at the time, became the first player to move straight from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues without a minor league stopover. In 1948, Doby and Satchel Paige became the first Black players to win the World Series. Doby also became the first Black player to homer in the Fall Classic, and in 1952 he was the first Black home run champ when he led the AL with 32.
“He was first,” Doby once said of Robinson, “but the crap I had to deal with was just as bad. Nobody said, ‘We’re going to be nice to the second Black.’ ”
A four-sport athlete, Doby in 1943 was the first Black player in the American Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA. But baseball was his first love, and he signed with the Eagles in 1942 at 17. His tenure in Newark was interrupted by a stint in the Navy during World War II.
Indians owner Bill Veeck gave Doby his shot in the majors, paying $15,000 to the Eagles on July 3, 1947, for his rights. Doby’s history-making debut came two days later at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Doby, a seven-time MLB all-star, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. He died at 79 in 2003. — Dave Sheinin
As a teenager growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Don Barksdale went to a Cal-UCLA football game and found himself fixated on a graceful scrambler with nimble feet. Jackie Robinson was “my first hero,” Barksdale later said.
After serving in World War II, Barksdale, like Robinson, became a multisport athlete at UCLA, running track and becoming the first Black consensus all-American in basketball. He also opened a record store in Los Angeles, befriending some of the biggest names in music.
Barksdale’s college career ended just before Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, but he made history a year later as the first Black member of the U.S. men’s basketball team, which won gold at the 1948 London Olympics. While waiting for the NBA to integrate, Barksdale played AAU basketball and became a disc jockey in San Francisco. He finally signed with the Baltimore Bullets in 1951 and, in his second season, became the league’s first Black all-star.
After his basketball career was cut short by ankle injuries, Barksdale returned to the Bay Area, where he started a record label and opened two nightclubs. He died at 69 in 1993 and was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, but he already had been immortalized in popular culture: Character D’Angelo Barksdale’s name in “The Wire” was a tribute to the Bullets’ first Black player, whose full name was Don Angelo Barksdale. — Michael Lee
Over a five-day period in 1950, three Black players — Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton — broke the NBA’s color barrier.
It was happenstance but historically significant that the Washington Capitols opened the 1950-51 season one day before the Boston Celtics and four days before the New York Knicks. It meant Lloyd would be remembered forever as the first Black player in the NBA, ahead of Cooper (who was drafted first) and Clifton (who signed first).
Known as “Big Cat,” Lloyd, a forward, went on to play 560 games across nine seasons in the NBA. His best year was 1954-55, after he returned from the Korean War, when he averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, helping the Syracuse Nationals to the championship. Lloyd and teammate Jim Tucker were the first Black players to win an NBA title.
A product of the segregated South, Lloyd once said he never so much as sat next to a White person until he was 21. And while he was quickly accepted by his White teammates, he felt the effects of racism on the road, getting spat on by a fan and being refused service at hotels and restaurants.
“You can’t jump in the stands and be fighting the fans,” Lloyd told NPR in 2010, five years before he died at 86. “So the only way you can make them pay is that they lose.” — Dave Sheinin
On Aug. 25, 1950, Althea Gibson strode onto Court 14 at West Side Tennis Club in Queens, N.Y., and shattered a racial barrier — as the first Black player in the U.S. National Championships — in a manner that called to mind what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball three years earlier in Brooklyn.
But there was one critical distinction: Robinson had teammates. Gibson stood alone.
Gibson, 23 at the time, would lose in the second round, a match marred by racial slurs that rained down from the stands. But her towering talent was obvious.
She spent much of the 1950s breaking other barriers — first Black player to compete at Wimbledon (1951), first to win a Grand Slam singles title (French Championships, 1956), first to win a Wimbledon singles title (1957), first to win the U.S. Nationals (1957).
She soared to the top of the sport in the process, becoming the world’s top-ranked woman in 1957 and 1958. And for 43 years, she was the only African American woman to have won a Grand Slam singles title — until Serena Williams took the U.S. Open in 1999.
Gibson retired suddenly in 1958 with 11 Grand Slam titles, including five in singles. It was a decision forced by neither her age nor her race but by her finances; in the pre-Open era, there was no prize money at major tournaments. “Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but you can’t eat a crown.”
But Gibson wasn’t finished breaking barriers. In 1964, at 37, she became the Jackie Robinson of women’s golf as the first Black woman to join the LPGA Tour. Her best year came in 1966, when she was ranked 27th, and her best finish was a tie for second at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open.
Gibson, who was inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, died at 76 in 2003. — Dave Sheinin
Had someone thought to give him a vision test, Willie O’Ree might never have become the Jackie Robinson of hockey.
When he joined the Boston Bruins in 1958, O’Ree came harboring a secret: He was blind in one eye, the result of an errant puck he had taken two years earlier. The injury, had he disclosed it, might have disqualified him from playing in the NHL.
Instead, on Jan. 18, 1958, at the Montreal Forum, O’Ree, 22, took the ice for the Bruins to become the NHL’s first Black player. He would go on to play 45 games for the Bruins over two seasons, amassing four goals (including two game-winners) and 10 assists, then spent two decades in the minor leagues.
O’Ree, a native of New Brunswick, faced racist taunts and slurs throughout his brief tenure in the NHL, including one incident that turned violent. In 1961, O’Ree later claimed, the Chicago Black Hawks’ Eric Nesterenko, after first slinging slurs at O’Ree, butt-ended him in the face with his stick, shattering his front teeth and breaking his nose. When O’Ree responded by smashing Nesterenko over the head with his stick, it nearly caused a riot.
O’Ree, now 86, has enjoyed a renewal of interest in his story and legacy in recent years. He was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, the same year the NHL established the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. The Bruins retired his No. 22 in January, and Congress voted to award him a Congressional Gold Medal that same month. — Dave Sheinin
Sometime in the late 1940s, not long after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, a young Black man introduced himself and said he hoped to do the same thing in his own sport.
“Are you a quitter?” Robinson asked Charlie Sifford.
“No,” Sifford replied.
True to his word, Sifford never quit trying to become the Jackie Robinson of golf, even as the years crept by without progress.
He didn’t quit in 1952, when he received an invitation to try to qualify for the Phoenix Open, only to find human feces in the cup at the first green. He didn’t quit throughout the 1950s, when he was relegated to Blacks-only events, winning the United Golf Association’s National Negro Open six times.
Finally, after a pressure campaign backed by a prominent attorney, Sifford was given his PGA Tour card in 1960 at 38. It had cost him the best years of his career, but Sifford had fulfilled the vow he made to Robinson — yet it would take another year for the PGA to drop the “Whites-only” clause from its bylaws.
Sifford, a Charlotte native who came into the sport as a caddie at a Whites-only country club, would win twice on the PGA Tour and was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
Among those inspired by Sifford was Tiger Woods, who named his son Charlie after the man Woods called “the grandpa I never had.” Without Sifford, Woods once said, “I probably wouldn’t be here.”
When he joined the pro rodeo circuit, bull rider Myrtis Dightman sometimes would encounter signs at the arena entrance that read, “No dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans.” He would find it curious how he always seemed to draw the biggest, meanest bulls. On the road, as everyone else stayed in hotels, he often would be forced to sleep in the back seat of his car — after first informing the local police he would be doing so, of course.
But Dightman’s talent for staying on the backs of 1,500-pound bulls was unmistakable, and once he got his chance, he soared to the top of the sport. In 1964, he became the first Black cowboy to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, finishing 17th. He would qualify for five more NFRs in his career, with a best finish of third in 1967.
Born into a ranching family in Texas in 1935, Dightman got his start as a rodeo clown, distracting the bulls to keep them from doing serious harm to the riders after bucking them off. But he eventually made his way atop the bulls and proved himself a formidable talent almost immediately.
Dightman, who was inducted to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2016, wasn’t the first Black cowboy to compete. Around the turn of the 20th century, Bill Pickett competed in the best-known circuit and is credited with inventing the practice of steer wrestling. Marvel Rogers and Willie Thomas were celebrated riders in the Southwestern Colored Cowboys Association, back when the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association excluded Black competitors.
“A lot of folks thought rodeo was a White man’s game,” Dightman, who at 86 still lives outside Houston, once said. “But those bulls don’t care if you’re White or Black. You could be green, for all it matters. They just don’t want you on their backs.” — Dave Sheinin
Atoy Wilson’s first, most vivid memory of the 1965 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was of flying into Lake Placid, N.Y., on a small propeller plane at the end of his journey from his native Los Angeles.
“Look at all that salt on the ground,” Wilson recalled telling his mother, Thelma.
“No,” she replied, “this is snow.”
Later that week, Wilson — 13 at the time and coached by Mabel Fairbanks, herself a pioneering Black figure in the sport — became the first Black skater to compete at nationals, finishing second in the novice category. A year later, in Berkeley, Calif., he won that category, becoming the first Black national champion.
At the time, he once recalled, he was “impervious” to the significance of his achievements, instead focusing all of his mental energy on skating. “I’m sure [others] were having conversations,” he said. “It never got to my ears. I just knew I had to get out there on that clean sheet of ice and lay down some figures and do a freestyle.”
By the end of the 1960s, despite having found success as a junior and thinking about competing at the senior level in hopes of making the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, Wilson walked away from competitive skating to focus on his studies at Loyola Marymount University.
He would return to skating in the 1970s and 1980s as a professional, spending seven years touring the world with the Ice Follies and another six with Holiday on Ice.
Now 70, Wilson still lives in Los Angeles. — Dave Sheinin
When Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach decided to stop lighting up victory cigars from the bench, his succession plan was obvious: hand the team to the player whose intelligence and leadership had delivered nine rings.
But Bill Russell was Black, in a tumultuous period in American history, in a town that wasn’t always welcoming to him despite the banners he helped put in the rafters at Boston Garden. In becoming the first Black coach of any major professional team sport in 1966, Russell had the benefit of leading a championship dynasty that still had its franchise centerpiece in place — himself. (Being a “player-coach” was still a thing back then.)
Coaching provided Russell, who was always outspoken on civil rights issues, another opportunity to step out in front. At his introductory news conference, he was asked whether he could do the job impartially — without prejudice against White players. An annoyed Russell responded that he could because “in basketball, you respect a man for his ability — period.”
Russell had the respect of his teammates; they responded by winning two championships in his three seasons as coach. Although he couldn’t duplicate that success in stops with Seattle and Sacramento, Russell is one of five men inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach. — Michael Lee
Nate Northington was never supposed to integrate the SEC alone. In the summer of 1967, Northington, a running back/safety from Louisville, and Greg Page, a defensive end from Middlesboro, Ky., were poised to suit up together for the University of Kentucky that fall.
But when Page was paralyzed during an August practice, Northington was left to make history alone, which he did Sept. 23, 1967, by playing sparingly in the Wildcats’ 12-10 loss at Indiana. At that moment, the SEC became the last of the major college football conferences to integrate.
“We were like brothers,” Northington once said. In 1965, Northington and Page signed with Kentucky after Gov. Ned Breathitt (D) recruited them to be trailblazers. “When Greg was injured, it all fell on me,” Northington said.
Page died six days after Northington’s first game — and one day before Northington made his home debut for the Wildcats against Mississippi. Shaken by his friend’s death and hampered by a shoulder injury, Northington left the team five games into the season, eventually transferring to Western Kentucky.
Recognition for Northington was slow in arriving, but the publication of his autobiography, “Still Running,” in 2014 helped move things along. In 2016, Kentucky unveiled a statue commemorating the achievement, and in 2017 — 50 years after his historic moment — Northington served as an honorary captain for the Wildcats in a game against Eastern Michigan.
Northington, 74, lives in Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville. — Dave Sheinin
Wayne Embry nearly bypassed a championship ring — and a pioneering career as an NBA executive — to become a regional sales manager for Pepsi.
After five straight all-star seasons for the Cincinnati Royals, Embry was prepared to retire at 28 before Celtics legend Red Auerbach convinced the burly center to become a backup to Bill Russell, who was set to become the first Black coach in NBA history.
In Boston, Embry won his only title as a player. Then he was selected in the expansion draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, who would make him a trailblazer. Embry retired in 1969 and slid into a front-office role with the Bucks. He convinced longtime former teammate Oscar Robertson to come play with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a move that resulted in the Bucks winning the 1971 title.
On March 6, 1972, Embry became the first Black general manager in North American sports. Robertson said at the time, “Wayne is qualified, and if a man is qualified, he should be doing the job.” Embry lasted six seasons in Milwaukee, reaching another Finals in 1974. He resurfaced in 1985 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, with whom he was named NBA executive of the year in 1992 and 1998. In 1999, Embry was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he has served as an adviser with the Toronto Raptors since 2004, winning another title in 2019. He turned 85 last month. — Michael Lee
Marian Washington was a seven-sport athlete in high school and planned to make a name for herself on the field. After leading hometown West Chester (Pa.) State College to the first official women’s basketball national title in 1969, she was one of the first two Black women named to the U.S. national team.
She represented Team USA at the 1971 world championships in Brazil, then moved to Arkansas to work and train for the 1972 Munich Olympics, only to have the International Olympic Committee delay the addition of women’s basketball until 1976. Still in the Midwest, she reached out to a friend about opportunities at the University of Kansas. “Kansas? Isn’t that Oz?” Washington once said of the place that would eventually become home.
A year after enrolling at Kansas and becoming a graduate assistant, Washington was elevated in 1973 to head coach, becoming the first Black coach at a Division I women’s basketball program — just three years after Will Robinson became the first Black coach at a men’s Division I program (Illinois State). Washington was named women’s athletic director in 1974 and started the Jayhawks’ track and field program that same year.
Before retiring in 2004, Washington won 560 games, led Kansas to 11 NCAA tournament appearances and coached four all-Americans, including Naismith Hall of Famer Lynette Woodard. Washington, now 75, also became the first Black woman to coach a U.S. basketball team in international competition in 1982, and she was the first to serve on an Olympic women’s basketball staff as part of the 1996 gold medal-winning team in Atlanta. She was inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and received the lifetime achievement award from the Black Coaches Association. — Michael Lee
Addressing the crowd before a 1972 World Series game in Cincinnati, Jackie Robinson said he longed for “the day I can look over at third base and see a Black man as manager.” Robinson wouldn’t live to see it happen; he died of a heart attack nine days later. But in October 1974, the Cleveland Indians granted his wish, hiring Frank Robinson as their manager.
“The only reason I’m the first Black manager is because I was born Black,” Robinson said when he was introduced. “I’m not a superman. I’m not a miracle worker.”
Frank Robinson was still a player — he had won a Triple Crown and a World Series and was the first to win an MVP award in both leagues — but he had been preparing for the opportunity to run a team for years, having spent the six previous offseasons managing in the Puerto Rican winter league (and winning two titles). On April 8, 1975 — exactly one year after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record — Robinson homered in his first at-bat as player-manager, with Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, in attendance.
Frank Robinson would manage 2,241 games over 17 seasons for Cleveland, Baltimore, Montreal, Washington and San Francisco, where he became the first Black manager in the National League. He died at 83 in 2019. — Michael Lee
Even when Art Shell was in the trenches as an offensive tackle, Raiders owner Al Davis and then-coach John Madden would call him “Coach.” That nickname became his title four games into the 1989 season, after Davis got fed up with Mike Shanahan’s 1-3 start.
Hiring a coach of color wasn’t a reach for the renegade Davis. Shanahan’s predecessor, Tom Flores, who is Latino, led the franchise to two Super Bowl wins. Davis wasn’t looking for a coach who was Black; he wanted someone who understood the Silver and Black.
Shell more than fit the bill, playing 15 seasons and serving as an assistant for another six with the Raiders, contributing to all three of the organization’s championships. On Oct. 3, 1989 — the 15-year anniversary of Frank Robinson being hired as MLB’s first Black manager — Shell became the first Black head coach of the NFL’s Super Bowl era, ending a nearly 65-year gap from when the Hammond Pros’ Fritz Pollard became the first Black coach of the pre-merger NFL.
Shell made his debut on “Monday Night Football,” defeating the New York Jets, 14-7, and the Raiders finished 8-8. A year later, he was the coach of the year and his team made the AFC championship game. He posted five winning records in seven seasons over two stints with the organization. At the time of the initial hire, Davis and Shell, who’s now 75, downplayed race. “It is a historic event. I understand the significance of it. I’m proud of it,” Shell said then. “But I’m also a Raider.” — Michael Lee
Willy T. Ribbs was called many things at the height of his racing career, some of them unprintable. But one insulting adjective always stuck with him: uppity.
The word was meant to put Ribbs in his place; instead, he took ownership of it. Years later, when Netflix unveiled a documentary about the first Black man to start in the Indianapolis 500, it was titled “Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story.”
People “thought I should walk 10 paces behind them,” he once said. “That wasn’t happening.”
Ribbs began racing soon after graduating from high school in San Jose, finding success in the Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic and Trans-Am series. Having developed a friendship with Muhammad Ali, Ribbs would perform the “Ali Shuffle” atop his car after wins.
But Ribbs always aimed higher. In 1985, a first shot at the Indy 500, backed by boxing promoter Don King, flamed out because of mechanical issues during qualifying. A year later, he became the first Black driver to test a Formula One car. Still, the massive budget required to race in the bigger circuits was a barrier to entry.
Finally, in 1988, Ribbs got a call out of the blue from comedian Bill Cosby, who offered to fund another run at Indy. It would take three years, but Ribbs got his shot in 1991, qualifying in 29th place and earning his place in history. Though Ribbs’s Buick-powered Lola blew its engine five laps into the race, he returned in 1993 and completed all 200 laps, finishing 21st.
Now 67, Ribbs lives on a ranch outside of Austin. Since his groundbreaking start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, only one other Black driver, George Mack in 2002, has started the Indy 500. — Dave Sheinin
Robert L. Johnson was the ninth of 10 kids born to Edna and Archie Johnson in Hickory, Miss., but he owns many firsts in the business world.
Johnson, 76, founded BET, the first cable network focusing on African Americans, with then-wife Sheila in 1979. BET became the first Black-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. And Johnson became the first Black billionaire in 2000 when he sold BET to Viacom.
But in 2002, Johnson turned the fantasy of Black sports ownership into reality when he beat out a group led by Larry Bird to purchase an NBA expansion franchise in Charlotte. Johnson spent $300 million to become the first Black principal owner of a North American sports team, joining a league that already had delivered pro sports’ first Black coach and first Black general manager.
At the time, Johnson still was America’s lone Black billionaire, and he had no interest in a bidding war over the franchise he eventually named the Bobcats, who debuted in 2004. Johnson told the NBA, “I don’t mind being in a beauty contest, but I don’t want to be in an auction.” He later said, “It’s nice to know you’re the prettier guy.”
He sold the franchise, now known as the Hornets, in 2010. The buyer: Michael Jordan, the first Black former player to own a team. — Michael Lee
It is nearly 4,200 miles from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe to the heart of Paris, but Yohann Gène’s journey from his island upbringing to a history-making ride in the 2011 Tour de France seems even longer than that.
Before Gène, now 40, could earn a measure of fame as the first Black rider in cycling’s most famous event, he had to be discovered by a team manager, Jean-René Bernaudeau of Europcar (who was vacationing in Guadeloupe), and invited to move to France at 17 to train. He had to learn how to race on cobblestone roads and up Alpine mountains. And he had to show he could deal with racism.
In all, there were 14 years between Gène’s move to France as a teenager and his Tour de France debut as a 30-year-old in 2011.
“I wanted somebody with a cool head who had a character strong enough to put up with hardship,” Bernaudeau said of Gène to the Wall Street Journal, in a quote that echoes Branch Rickey on Jackie Robinson. “Yohann is like that. If somebody … says something racist, and it has happened, he doesn’t talk back. He just drops him.”
Outside of the barrier-breaking history, there was little glory in Gène’s 2011 ride. His role was to protect team leader Thomas Voeckler, who finished fourth, and Gène’s official finish was 158th. He would race in six more Tours before retiring.
It took more than a century for the Tour de France, which was first staged in 1903, to have its first Black rider, and it will take longer still for significant progress to be made: In the 2021 edition of the race, there was only one Black rider. — Dave Sheinin
Not all of the athletes who followed Jackie Robinson across the racial barrier are old men whose history-making moments came generations ago. Some are women in their early 30s whose breakthroughs came in the middle of the previous decade.
Blake Bolden, 31, has spent much of her life crashing through a two-faceted barrier: As a kid growing up outside Akron, Ohio — where her mother’s boyfriend inadvertently introduced her to the sport by letting her tag along to his job as a security guard for the minor league Cleveland Lumberjacks — she often was both the only girl and the only Black player on her youth hockey teams.
“People were cruel,” Bolden once said of her early years in the sport. “I would beat their sons, and they would stare me down. … Or I would walk in and people would wonder what the heck I was even doing at a rink.”
After four years at Boston College, where she was the captain as a senior, Bolden in 2013 became the first Black player drafted into the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Two years later, she integrated the National Women’s Hockey League, where she was a three-time all-star and the 2019 defensive player of the year.
In 2020, after retiring, Bolden was hired as a scout by the Los Angeles Kings, becoming the first Black woman in NHL history to hold that title.
“If hockey is something a person of a different race never could have imagined,” she once said, “I want to be proof to not count it out as a sport, because we need more diversity.” — Dave Sheinin