Earlier this week, a talk radio station here in New York City aired a Black History Month celebration segment featuring former boxer Mike Tyson. During the segment, a minute or less, they talked about Tyson being the youngest boxer to win heavyweight championships, earning fame and fortune, but the segment ended with Tyson’s rape conviction in 1992 and with him biting Evander Holyfield’s ear during a prize fight between the two in 1997. Yes, they were both moments in sports history, but not moments of sports history that are celebrated.
Like Harriet Tubman, Eli Whitney, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall and other Black Americans who have contributed greatly to the history of the United States, Black athletes have contributed greatly to the annals of American sports, helping to make them a favorite pasttime here and abroad. With their extraordinary skills, talent and personality, Black athletes have helped sports grow exponentially to the billion-dollar businesses that they’ve become.
Of course, everyone knows the name and legacy of Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan and even Tiger Woods, but there have been so many other athletes preceding them who don’t get acknowledged, who aren’t recognized.
Althea Gibson was the first Black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, Gibson became the first person of color to win the French Open, a Grand Slam title. The following year, Gibson won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She won them both again in 1958 and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by The Associated Press both years. In all, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including six doubles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In the early 1960s, Gibson also became the first Black player to compete on the women’s professional golf tour.
In July 1947, three months after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a National League team, Larry Doby broke the American League MLB color barrier when he signed with the Cleveland Indians.
A seven-time All-Star center fielder, Doby and teammate, pitcher Satchel Paige, who joined Cleveland in 1948, were the first African-American players to win a World Series, helping Cleveland win the championship in Paige’s first year.
Paige, a star in the Negro League, was 42 when he joined Cleveland, making the right-handed pitcher the oldest man (the oldest rookie) to make his debut in the major leagues.
Although it’s considered politically incorrect to have a statue of a Black jockey on one’s lawn, real-life Black jockeys once dominated the sport of horse racing, at a time when it was America’s most popular sport. They were superstars, big ballers.
Thirteen of the 15 riders in the very first Kentucky Derby held in 1875, 10 years after the end of the Civil War, were African-Americans. Fifteen of the first 28 Derby runs, from 1875 to 1902, were won by African-Americans. Oliver Lewis, a jockey turned legal bookmaker, road Aristides in the inaugural race.
Willie Simms won the very first Kentucky Derby held at one-and-a-quarter miles in 1896, on a track shortened from one-and-a-half miles the years before. He won it again, along with the Preakness Stakes, in 1898. Simms also won the Belmont Stakes in 1893 and in 1894.
James Winkfield, a thoroughbred jockey and horse trainer from Kentucky is best remembered as the last African-American to ride a Derby winner.
Like jockey Isaac Burns Murphy, the first jockey ever to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, recognized as one of the greatest jockeys of all time, Winkfield also won two Derbies in a row. The first in 1901 at the age of 19, and his second in 1902.
It’s important that they are all remembered and acknowledged, and that all of the stories are told.