Golf enthusiasts, particularly those attuned to Blacks who have excelled on the links, may have heard of a few old-timers such as Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown and Lee Elder (who died recently died on Nov. 28), but unless you are deeply informed Bill Spiller may have escaped your gaze.
Spiller was born Oct. 25, 1913 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma and moved to Tulsa in 1922, a year after the race massacre took the lives of countless African Americans. At a very early age his athletic prowess bloomed, and he eventually starred in two sports as a high school student and at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Golf was not one of the sports he pursued in college. He was 30 years old when he seriously began playing golf and saw it as a possible professional career.
By this time he was residing in Southern California, and armed with a degree in education he taught for a while, supplementing his income by working as a railroad porter. He was convinced by a fellow porter to give golf a try and began competing and winning in Blacks-only amateur tournaments in the 1940s. His performance in the Los Angeles Open was sensational in 1948, though he failed to defeat the great Ben Hogan. Finishing in the top 60, however, made him eligible for the next PGA tournament—the Richmond Open. It should be noted that Ted Rhodes also made the cut tying at 22nd while Spiller ended in a tie at 29th making them the first Africans to play in non-USGA, PGA Tour events.
When he was denied entry in the 1948 Richmond Open Held in Richmond, California by the PGA of America, he began to relentlessly challenge the PGA’s segregation policy. No participant in a major golf tournament could enter without approval of the PGA, and, of course, one of the rules was you had to be white.
With the assistance of attorney Jonathan Rowell of the Bay Area, Spiller filed a lawsuit. He was joined in the lawsuit by Ted Rhodes, and they charged they were being denied an opportunity to earn a living because the PGA was a closed shop. Such rules, under the Taft-Hartley Act, were illegal and against the law. After the PGA agreed to end its discriminatory policy that would allow them to participate, they withdrew the lawsuit. This promise was not kept as the PGA sidestepped the agreement by sponsoring “invitational tournaments,” and Blacks were not among those invited.
Spiller, however, was invited to the 1952 San Diego Open, where apparently the sponsors were not aware of the whites-only clause. To correct this mistake, Horton Smith, president of the PGA of America, moved to exclude them. Joe Louis, the former heavyweight boxing champion, interceded on behalf of the golfers and the situation, mainly through the nationwide microphone of Walter Winchell, which gained national traction. A lawsuit was once again filed by Spiller and, like before, the PGA and Smith promised to change the rules. Although the segregation clause remained in place, some sponsors began inviting African Americans anyway.
By 1960, the racist policy of the PGA was a common practice, one that the attorney general of California and the state’s future Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk could not ignore. He advised the PGA of America that it would not be allowed on public courses where most of the tournaments were held. To get around this injunction, the PGA resorted to hosting their tournaments on private courses. Aware of the manipulation to avoid ending discrimination, Mosk then began contacting attorney generals in other states to adhere to his measure.
In November 1961, the PGA of America finally relented and removed the clause that had been in existence since 1943. The success of this came much too late for Spiller, who was by now 48 years old, having started his golf career comparatively late. Even so, he had paved the way for other Black golfers to participate in the major PGA of America tournaments, and win.
Spiller died in 1988 in Los Angeles California, and in 2009 he was granted a posthumous honorary membership to the PGA, along with Ted Rhodes and John Shippen, and to the boxing immortal Joe Louis. “He would have been proud of this honor,” said his daughter, Pamela Spiller-Stewart.
“Bill Spiller is a hero, but unappreciated,” said Al Barkow, a national sports writer on golf. “Charlie Sifford gets a lot of the credit for breaking the racial barrier, but Bill Spiller paved the way.” He was inducted into the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bill Spiller courtesy of the PGA and Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame
Find Out More
Any golf digest or historical account of Blacks in golf usually includes at least a paragraph on Spiller and his pioneering career.
More needs to be said about the number of tournaments Spiller won and what amount of money he earned on the links.
Place in Context
Spiller came of age during the first decade of the 20th century and lived to near the end of it, making his mark in golf along the way.
This Week in Black History
Dec. 12, 1940: Singer Dionne Warwick, winner of five Grammys, was born in Orange, N.J.
Dec. 12, 1943: Popular saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. was born in Buffalo, N.Y. He died in 1999.
Dec. 12, 1963: The East African nation of Kenya achieved its independence.