In the year 1899 an American cyclist won the world championship in the 1-mile track event. In those days, track cycling was what really mattered and cycling was a reasonably big deal. So this was an event in sport. An even bigger deal was the fact that Marshall "Major" Taylor (Wikipedia) was black. This fact was, likewise, important:
The League of American Wheelmen, then the governing body for the sport, banned blacks from amateur racing in 1894, just as bicycling's popularity surged.
The "colored cyclone," as the newspapers called him, competed fiercely on the national circuit in 1897 but had to abandon the quest for sprint points champion when Southern race promoters refused him entry.
Hostility from white riders had gone from conspiratorial race tactics to threats to physical assault. One time a competitor pulled Taylor from his bike and choked him into unconsciousness. Some of the press condemned the racist treatment Taylor received, but some articles suggested he was to blame, saying white riders were understandably angered by his racing prowess and his failure to keep in his place.
Between the years 1908-1915, Arthur John "Jack" Johnson (Wikipedia) was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world. For those of you who grew up with, or only know of, the likes of Ali, Foreman (twice!), Sugar Ray, Tyson, Holyfield... the fact that Johnson was black will be no big deal. Back in the early 1900s it was a different story:
By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating "Denver" Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the world heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.
Sydney Stadium during the Johnson-Burns match on December 26, 1908.
He eventually won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match.
Most of you will be familiar with what happened in baseball on April 15, 1947 (1889 to 1947, my friends. long time.) but are perhaps unfamiliar with the events of January 18, 1958. On this august occasion, one Willie Eldon O'Ree (Wikipedia) debuted with the Boston Bruins (yay!) against the much detested Montreal Canadiens (boo!). As it turned out, O'Ree did not go on to have a stellar career at the top ranks but he did play in the minor leagues until the ripe old age of 43. Do I even have to mention this?
O'Ree played just one more game in the NHL that first season before he returned to the minors. He made it back for the 1960-61 season, and that's when he began to understand the difference his skin color made, in particular to fans and opponents in America. Trips to New York, Detroit and Chicago were the worst, as he played through slurs, taunts and threats.
"In the penalty box, stuff would be thrown at [me], and they'd spit at me," O'Ree says, his voice even, and his memory clear. "I never fought one time because of racial remarks. I fought because guys butt-ended me and speared me and cross-checked me. But I said, 'If I'm going to leave the league, it's because I don't have the skills or the ability to play anymore. I'm not going to leave it 'cause some guy makes a threat or tries to get me off my game by making racial remarks towards me.'"
Man. Things kinda sucked back then if you were a sports fan, didn't they? I mean, sports is all about the excellence of competition. Any comers, all comers...knowatimsayin? Glad we left all that nonsense behind long before I became a sports fan.
Hmm. You know, I once watched a Rose Bowl in which an undersized mediocre looking, but nevertheless competent, quarterback did a decent job of not losing too badly to his opposition. Faint praise right? Well, homie went on to a NFL pro career and made tons of cash while being, well, still kinda mediocre. Back in the 1978 Rose Bowl, however, fans were lucky enough to watch one Warren Moon (Wikipedia) of the UW Huskies whup up on the U. Mich Wolverines (boo!). Of course, even for some third rate collegiate bowl game, the fans were lucky to have him.
He was recruited by a number of colleges, but some wanted to convert Moon to another position as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks. Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College in 1974-75 where he was a record-setting quarterback. After Moon showed his ability at West L.A., only a handful of four-year colleges showed interest in signing him. Offensive Coordinator Dick Scesniak [University of Washington], however, was eager to sign the rifle-armed Moon.
...oh, for chrissakes! People. This was the 1970s!!! Oh yeah, that's right. I remember those days. Black players can't be quarterback, you see. Don't have the right shoulder structure, it's a genetic thing doncha know. Plus, they aren't as good at all that, you know, quarterbacking stuff....
Come to think of it, I seem to recall some weebag Div I hockey player (who never ended up going anywhere professionally) writing some paper about how black people's hip structure precluded them from skating very well. (Or, skating like gangbusters and then fixing, oh, knees and hips for a living as an orthopedic surgeon)
Sorry. Back to the point. Oh yes. Warren Moon. Back to the Wikipedia:
Throughout his CFL career, Moon amassed 1,369 completions on 2,382 attempts (57.4 completion percentage) for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes. He also led his team to victory in 9 of 10 postseason games. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour. In 2006, he was ranked fifth on a list of the greatest 50 CFL players presented by Canadian sports network TSN.
Not to shabby for a guy thought physically and mentally incapable of playing the quarterback position because of his skin color, right? Pretty decent.
What? What's that you say? There's more? Oh, riiiiigghht. That Warren Moon. The one who next jumped to the NFL and played from 1984-2000 as one of the more exciting quarterbacks to take the field,
Combining his NFL and CFL stats, Moon's numbers are nearly unmatched in professional football annals: 5,357 completions in 9,205 attempts for 70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns. Even if his Canadian League statistics are discounted, Warren Moon's career is still exceptional: 3,988 completions for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards rushing, and 22 rushing touchdowns. During his NFL career, Warren Moon was named to nine Pro Bowl games (1988-1995, 1997).
I'm just getting going...
Alright. There's really not much point in going on and on to list Owens and Ashe and Gibson and the Williamses and Ribbses and Woods and Jones and all the other great athletes who thrilled (or continue to thrill) us with their class, competence and courage. Little point in detailing for each case where and when the operating rules of their sports (official and/or de facto) would have (or did..or still do) prevent them from excelling because of their skin color. Not much profit in describing how the overt bigotry of "they can't do it" papered over the fear that someone might be better than the rest of us. Silly to talk about the moral repugnance of categorically closing off the open field of play to some people just to benefit ourselves or those more like ourselves.
Because, you know, we're beyond all that sort of thing now. And...this is a blog that is supposed to focus on science. And the conduct of science. Which is objective. The only goal is the discovery. Doncha know.
Talking about diversity and openness and all that is just whining. Until you show us, with data, how discovery is being impaired by any particular lack in diversity. With data. did I say that part yet? Because, you know, we're about empirical science. Discovery. We couldn't possibly learn any lessons without a prospective experiment...
Update 032509: Related post from Abel Pharmboy