There has been a long line of incredible African-Americans athletes who have dominated their respective sport. From Jack Johnson who became the first Black Heavyweight champion to the Williams sisters who rewrote record books and changed the landscape of tennis. Black athletes have played a huge role in growing professional sports in America. Here are a few of the best African-American athletes in sports history.
Let’s go decade by decade, from the 1910’s to 1950’s, and recognize these great people.
1910’s: Jack Johnson
Despite the efforts of a racially motivated arrest and conviction in 1912, forced Johnson to leave the country for the entire decade. But nothing could stop Jack Johnson from being one of the greatest heavyweights in history. Johnson was unapologetic, outspoken and out of everyone’s league in the boxing ring, where he compiled an 11-1-1 record in the decade. In his first fight of the decade, “The Fight of the Century,” Johnson took on former champion James Jeffries, who wanted to prove his boxing and racial supremacy.
“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro,” the retired Jeffries commented. On a day where the racial animosity could only be matched by the sweltering heat, Johnson dominated Jeffries before knocking him out in the 15th round. Johnson could potentially be the athlete of the 1900’s to the 1920’s, but by the end of this decade, his age began showing as he lost six straight fights between 1928-31.
1920’s: Fritz Pollard
The half back/quarterback/coach Fritz Pollard spent the decade as a pioneer in the early professional league. Because of poor record keeping, we have to measure Pollard’s career on team success instead of statistical numbers. Leading the Akron Pros to the first championship in the NFL’s inaugural season (then called the American Professional Football Association), Pollard became their co-head coach in 1921. Pollard would play and coach for multiple teams over the next few seasons until 1926 when he and the other eight Black players were removed from the league. Pollard would barnstorm for another eleven seasons, continuing coaching before retiring.
1930’s: Joe Louis
At this point, the decision-making becomes a lot tougher with the beginning of more professional leagues for African-Americans allowing their talents to be put on display. Stars in Negro League Baseball like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson were definitely considered, but at the end of the day, this was a two-person competition.
Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympics performance in the face of evil in the form of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Berlin is remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of the competition. It is difficult to pick for someone ahead of him, but it would be more difficult to pick someone else aside from “The Brown Bomber.”
More than two decades after Jack Johnson took the crown as the first Black heavyweight champion, Joe Louis found himself at the top of the heavyweight division. Unlike Johnson, Louis was a quieter, less boisterous person. His inner circle saw the reaction the country had from Jack Johnson’s big personality so Louis would be the opposite. In doing so, Louis became the first African-American athlete to be embraced by the country. In 1938, when the American Louis avenged his only loss of the decade by knocking out a champion and German Max Schmeling in the first round. The fight was between the two countries’ ideologies. In the decade, Louis would go 40-1 and begin his record eleven years title defense, between the years 1937-48.
1940’s: Jackie Robinson & Sugar Ray Robinson
This is the most important African-American athletes list so of course Jackie Robinson would be here. At UCLA in the early part of the decade, Robinson was a four sports star at football, basketball, track, and baseball. After spending three years in the army, Robinson spent a year playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League before being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he would end the decade by winning the MVP. It was tempting to make Robinson the athlete for the 1950’s, but like Louis, he starts to show his age during the decade with six losses in his forty-seven fights in the decade. Still the best, but not the best in this category.
The most dominant athlete in the 1940’s has to be Sugar Ray Robinson. In the decade, Robinson won an incredible 101 fights out of 104 matches. The term, “pound for pound” was created for Sugar Ray, as he decimated the welterweight and middleweight divisions of the boxing world. Even today, Robinson is considered the greatest boxer of all time, being voted No.1 by polls from ESPN, The Ring Magazine, the International Boxing Researching Organization and from boxers whose careers took place long after Ray’s final fight. Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley and any other boxers who called themselves “Sugar” illustrate his legacy continues today.
1950’s: Willie Mays
After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1951, Mays spent the majority of the next two years in the United States Army after being drafted. When he returned to the game in 1954, he immediately made up for lost time by winning the MVP and leading the New York Giants to a World Series championship. Mays would smack 250 home runs in seven total seasons and led the league in stolen bases from 1956-59. The complete, five-tool player, the same way boxers name themselves “Sugar,” outfielders today still wear the No. 24 in honor of Mays.
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