January 03, 2003
The color line in other sports

Want to win a bar bet some day? Ask someone to identify the following people: Earl Lloyd, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, and Willie O'Ree. Give up? They are, respectively, the first black players in the NBA, NFL, and NHL.

The NBA integrated in 1950-51. While Lloyd was the first black man to play in a game, Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted (by the Celtics), and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first to sign a contract (with the Knicks). The impetus for NBA integration was the Harlem Globetrotters, who beat the National Basketball League/Basketball Association of America champion Minneapolis Lakers two games out of three in 1948 and 1949. Many innovations in dribbling and passing can be traced to the Globetrotters as well.

(I saw the Globetrotters live as a kid a couple of times. They were tons of fun to watch. I can totally relate to this quote from that ESPN article:

Said longtime Globetrotter "Sweet Lou" Dunbar: "Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal were so popular because they were on TV. We'd be on ABC Wide World of Sports, although you had to endure a little bowling first."

I happily endured bowling any number of times in the 70s to catch a few minutes of the Trotters.)

An interesting commentary on integration and competitive advantage can be found on this page, which has photos of all of the Celtics' NBA championship teams from the 1950s on. Start at the top and count the number of black players on the team each year for the 11 seasons that Bill Russell was their center. Equally interesting to contemplate is that the recent influx of players from Europe and Asia likely means that NBA champions of the near future (such as, perhaps, the Sacramento Kings or Dallas Mavericks) will feature more non-black faces than champs of the near past. The circle we've come is so full we're on our second or third lap.

The NFL has a longer history of integration, as the precursor leagues of the early 20th century featured black players. The NFL was integrated when it was founded in 1922, but it adopted a no-blacks policy in 1933. That lasted until 1946, when the league faced competition from another league, the All-American Football Conference, which was integrated. The AAFC folded after four seasons, partly because they had one team, the Cleveland Browns, that thoroughly dominated the rest (the Browns won all four AAFC championships, going 52-4-3 overall). Absorbed into the NFL in 1950, the Browns served notice of their abilities right away, defeating the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10 in their first game, on their way to winning the Eastern Conference for six straight years.

The NHL has been a mostly white league for its entire existence. Though they never had an official color line, they also never had a black player until O'Ree debuted in 1958. Unlike the other pioneers, O'Ree did not lead a wave of black athletes into his league. The NHL reverted to being all white from O'Ree's departure in 1961 until 1978.

For what it's worth, when Grant Fuhr came up in the 80s, the explanation I always heard about hockey's whiteness was that the vast majority of players came from Canada, which presumably had a lower proportion of blacks in its population. Regardless, the NHL is more American and international now, and while Willie O'Ree sees more blacks and Hispanics making it in pro hockey, it wouldn't surprise me to see players from Asia make an impact some day.

As for baseball, I just want to mention that the first black player in the major leagues was Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker, who played with Toledo in the American Association in 1883. His brother Welday also played a few games with Toledo that year, but the infamous color line in baseball was erected after that season. Eighty-eight years later (twenty-four years after Jackie Robinson broke in), the Pittsburgh Pirates played a game in which all nine of their starters were black. The Pirates were one of the most integrated teams in the 1970s. They also won two World Series titles and four other divisional titles from 1970-1979.

(Though the idea for this post was my own, I took some inspiration and information from Tony Pierce.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 03, 2003 to Other sports | TrackBack

Actually, the National Basketball League was partially integrated in 1946; Dolly King played for Rochester (NY) and Pop Gates for Buffalo. The NBA doesn't like to mention the NBL, but it was one of the two leagues that merged to form the NBA. The Rochester club has moved around a lot and changed its nickname, and currently is the Sacramento Kings. The Buffalo franchise also moved around a lot; they're the Atlanta Hawks now. Ironically, the St. Louis Hawks were the last all-white champions.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on January 3, 2003 5:47 PM

Judging from an game on ESPN the other day, the Globetrotters appear to be out of the comedy business. The game I saw was a straight-faced affair with a college team (might have been last year's champs Maryland), and former NBA journeymen Cedric Ceballos and Olden Polynice were among those suiting up for the Trotters.

The current Harlem Globetrotter unis are more conventional as well. Guess that makes the Rockets the standard-bearers for all that is ugly and garish in sports livery!

Posted by: son volt on January 3, 2003 6:22 PM

Thanks for the clarification, Mac. BTW, I thought the Buffalo franchise became the (San Diego|Los Angeles) Clippers.

Haven't seen the Trotters in years now. I got the impression from that ESPN article that the increased popularity (and integration) of the NBA was fatal to them.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on January 3, 2003 8:20 PM

Bowling - hell, I put up with Gilligan's Island to watch the Globetrotters.

My favorite touch, of course:
O'Ree, Boston Bruins, debut: 1958.01.18
Green, Boston Redsox, debut: 1959.07.21

Posted by: Danil on January 3, 2003 10:28 PM

Dear Charles: For a historical perspective, your grandfather, in 1933, played semi-pro football on a fully intergrated team. I used to have the team picture, but in the many moves we made since 1998 it has been lost. The nicknames were legendary.In their single wing offense, my Dad was the fullback, and one of the tailbacks was "Egg" Jones. In the photo I lost, the explanation for "egg" is obvious.Actually, the entire team was a forerunner of the "gorgeous mosaic". Dad was Irish-German, there were Italians, Poles, real Irish, and at least one other Blackman, whose name excapes me now.
Later on, he played with another team that was intergrated as well.

Posted by: Dud on January 4, 2003 12:06 PM

Re: Hockey

Technically, there are Asians playing in the NHL. Richard Park, after playing part of last season in the minors for a team known as the Houston Aeros, got the call up to play for the Minnesota Wild and has been there since. He also played previously in the NHL (Penguins, Flyers), but by his own account, it was limited duty. Park was born in S. Korea, but moved to the US early in life.

Paul Kariya, a bonafide NHL All Star, is of partial Asian heritage. Don't ask me the particulars, as I'm not a big fan of the so-called Mighty Ducks.

Black players in the NHL are now about as common as one might suspect based on the geographical nature of the sport. The Canadian % of NHL players is still around 65%, International at about 15%, and US about 20% (give or take a bit on those numbers). There's a few black NHL players of note (All Stars or borderline), beginning with Anson Carter. Probably one of the better US-born players, in fact (although I've lost track of his stats since being traded out of Edmonton ... to, I believe, Boston). The Aeros in Houston, began life with a player by the name of Graeme Townshend, a black former NHLer (Boston, ironically) who was born in Jamaica, but whose family moved to Canada early on.

Outside of the transplants mentioned above, the reach of the sport is growing, as players from Kazahkstan and the netherreaches of the globe nearby are presently in the league. Its just a matter of time before an Indian or Pakistani is playing, although I think it'd be cool to see them both be enforcers and drop the gloves in a game.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on January 4, 2003 4:27 PM

Different Buffalo franchise, I believe. This franchise moved around a lot -- to the Tri-cities, then Milwaukee, then to St. Louis, and then to Atlanta. Where nobody goes to their games. The NBA expanded back into Buffalo long after they left, and that team eventually became the Clippers.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on January 4, 2003 6:26 PM

Hockey has caught in Thailand, of all places. the main Mercedes distributor went to school in Canada and started a minor craze for hockey. Several shopping malls have rinks, there are organized leagues-----O'Ree may be more right than we expect.

Posted by: Rich on January 4, 2003 10:02 PM

For the record Greg, Anson Carter is Canadian Born.

Posted by: Allan on April 7, 2004 3:01 AM

There has also been an east asian by the name of Robin Bawa, who played in the NHL.

Posted by: Lori-Ann on November 26, 2004 7:12 AM

Can anyone tell me which basketball team had the most Black players in any of the years between 1957-63? I think its the Celtics but may be mistaken... Thank you in advance! Melissa

Posted by: Melissa Weiner on August 2, 2005 2:23 PM

According to the Vancouver Canuck's roster, Richard Park is the second Korean-born player in the NHL. Can anyone educate me about who the first one was?

Posted by: Dennis on October 11, 2005 10:47 PM

Jim Paek was the 1st Korean born player in the NHL-he played for Pittburgh 1990/91.

There are a few Hispanic NHLers--Scott Gomez (New Jersey), Manny Fernandez (Minnesota) and Raffi Torres (Edmonton) off the top of my head. I think Gomez is actually from Alaska!

Manny Mallhotra's (Columbus) dad is from India, and Paul Kariya's dad is Japanese.

Posted by: PurrpleGrrl on November 22, 2005 9:37 PM