African American pioneers in sports

January 18, 2021


As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, we look back on the innumerable accomplishments of African Americans throughout our country’s history. Here at SquadLocker, we have a special affinity for sports, of course, so we thought we’d take a stroll back in time to check out some of the greatest winners in African American sports history – those who paved the way.

It’s not only about baseball, football and basketball, and it’s not only about players, but coaches and owners. Here’s a timeline highlighting just some of the African Americans who scored firsts, helping to change the complexion of sports forever.



First African American to play professional baseball - Moses Fleetwood Walker

Long, long before Jackie Robinson gained notoriety as the “first” Black player in Major League Baseball, Moses Fleetwood Walker was in fact the first African American to play professional baseball. He and his brother Weldy played for Oberlin College, then joined what was then a major league baseball team in Toledo.

Walker wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, by teammates or fans. Ohio State Rep. Michael Ashford notes, “When he played, there were Jim Crow laws. They spiked him. They spit on him. They did everything they could. There was open discrimination, and he still played.” Walker’s color forced him to play out his career in the minor leagues, and it ended altogether in 1889 when baseball stopped allowing players of color to participate.



The first Black Olympian - George Poage

George Poage became the first Black Olympian. The track and field specialist was also the first Black participant to win a medal, earning the bronze in the 440 hurdles.



First African American heavyweight boxing champ - Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was the first African American to win a heavyweight boxing championship. Race riots erupted all around the country when he knocked out an undefeated white opponent (James J. Jeffries) to win.



First Black players in the National Football League - Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall

Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall share the distinction of being the first Black players in the National Football League.



World record demolisher - Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is still a legend in track and field, and rightly so. But do you remember exactly why? Get this: as a college sprinter and long jumper, he managed to set 5 world records and equal a 6th – all at a single T&F event and all within 45 minutes.



First Black Major League Baseball Player - Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier the second time around, when Major League Baseball officially eliminated their no-Blacks policy. Though he followed Loses Walker by 60 years, Robinson wasn’t treated much better, on the field or off. But he used his visibility to serve as a major player in the emerging Civil Rights Movement as well as within his sport.



First Black American woman to win the French Grand Slam - Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson wins the French Grand Slam, the first Black American woman to achieve that goal and, in fact, the first African American woman to compete in any international pro tennis tour.



First African American Gold Glove Winner - Willie Mays

Willie Mays wins the Gold Glove Award, the first African American baseball player to do so.



First Black player in the NHL - Willie O'Ree

Willie O'Ree was the first Black player in the NHL as a winger for the Boston Bruins. O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.



First Black (and first American) woman to win 3 gold medals - Wilma Rudolph

Speedster Wilma Rudolph won a bronze medal in the 4x100 relay at the Olympics in 1956, but at the 1960 Games in Rome she became not only the first Black but the first American woman to win three gold medals.



First African American player in the PGA Tour - Charlie Sifford

Charlie Sifford received death threats when he tried to move from playing in all-Black golf tournaments to participating in the PGA’s Phoenix Open in 1952. Finally, nine years later, he did become the first Black player to join the Tour.



First African American to win a Heisman - Ernie Davis

Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis makes history as the first African American player to win this coveted award. Though drafted into the NFL, sadly he died of leukemia at just 23.



First Black NBA coach - Bill Russell

Famed basketball player Bill Russell became the first Black coach in the NBA, while still playing for the Celtics. He also became the first Black player voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in 1975.



An unbeatable US Open record - Arthur Ashe

To this day, no one has beaten Arthur Ashe’s record as the first-and-only African American men’s tennis player to win three singles US Open titles.



First Black player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame - Satchel Paige

Satchel Paige becomes the first Black pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.



First Black NBA general manager - Wayne Embry

The NBA got its first Black general manager when Wayne Embry took on the job with the Milwaukee Bucks.



First Black MVP - Franco Harris

Fans of Super Bowl IX got to watch the legendary Franco Harris not only rush for 158 yards but score a touchdown, earning him recognition of games’ first Black MVP.



First Black winner of the U.S. Amateur - Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods wins the U.S. Amateur, the first Black golfer to do so. And the rest, as they say, is history.



First African American woman to win a gold at the Winter Olympics

Olympic Games attendees in Salt Lake City got to see bobsledding star Vonetta Flowers, the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. 



First African American majority owner of a pro sports team - Robert Louis

Not a player, not a coach, but the first African American majority owner of a pro sports team – a distinction Robert Louis Johnson achieved when he paid $300 million for his share of the Charlotte Bobcats. (Where did he get all that dough? Johnson is the man behind the Black Entertainment Network.)



First African American to win a gold medal in an individual event - Shani Davis

African American Shani Davis wins the gold in the 1,000 meter speed skating race at the Winter Olympics. Davis becomes the first African American athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event at the Olympic Winter Games. He went on to win it again in Vancouver, in 2010.



First Black Super Bowl coaches face off - Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith

Two firsts in one at the Super Bowl this year, when competing coaches Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith made shared history as the first Black coaches to reach this pinnacle of play. Dungy and his Colts beat Smith’s Bears, in case you’ve forgotten, making him not only one of the two first Black coaches to make it to the Super Bowl but the first to win.



First woman of color to win the Individual - Gabby Douglas

Along with racking up several gold medals in Olympics competition, gymnast Gabby Douglas became the first woman of color to win the Individual

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