The Chicago Studebaker Flyers, then of the National Basketball League, integrate American professional team sports with six Black players — Sonny Boswell, Bernie Price, Hillery Brown, Duke Cumberland, Tony Peyton and Roosie Hudson — who were all former Harlem Globetrotters.
For every person familiar with baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, there are others who don’t know about Emlen Tunnell, the first Black Pro Football Hall of Famer, or Ann Gregory, the first Black woman to enter a United States Golf Association-sponsored event.
Inspired by the endeavors of these less-celebrated competitors, The Undefeated presents a visual timeline of the 20 years major pro teams and many individual sports were desegregated. We identify the Black and Afro-Latino players who integrated all-white professional teams starting in 1942, five years before Robinson’s Major League debut, through 1962, the year he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The dates stated are when players debuted in a game. American Football League, which launched in 1960, and expansion teams from that era in other sports, all of which began with players of color, are not included. Notable moments in Black history are also featured.
More than 40 athletes are included in this timeline and their stories deserve to be told.
Sugar Ray Robinson, right, defeats California Jackie Wilson at Madison Square Garden — the first of 91 consecutive unbeaten fights that continued until 1951.
“I tattooed the wall that day,” Jackie Robinson recalled of the futile tryout he and fellow Negro league stars Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams, pictured, have with the Red Sox, “but I knew we’d never hear from them and we never did.”
One of Branch Rickey’s first moves as Brooklyn Dodgers majority owner is to get Jackie Robinson to agree to a contract with the Montreal Royals. Two months later, the Negro League star officially signs.
Marion Motley, second from left on the top row, and Bill Willis, third from right on the bottom row, begin their Pro Football Hall of Fame careers with the Cleveland Browns, then part of the All-America Football Conference. Together they’d win four AAFC championships and a fifth after the merger with the NFL.
Kenny Washington, left on the top row, and Woody Strode, right on the bottom row, make their debuts in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, months before their former UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson first appears for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Sacramento Kings’ franchise, known at the time as the Rochester Royals, is the first eventual NBA team to integrate when the aptly-named William “Dolly” King joins the lineup.
Facing retaliation and boycotts, Jackie Robinson integrates America’s pastime when he debuts with the Brooklyn Dodgers in a season that would end with him as Rookie of the Year and the first African American to play in the World Series.
Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby integrates pro baseball in Cleveland and the American League. Doby would later become MLB’s second Black manager when the Chicago White Sox hired him in 1978. Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians was the first.
Hank Thompson debuts with the St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles), integrating the baseball team in one of America’s most thoroughly segregated cities. Limited opportunities there drove him back to the Negro Leagues by the 1948 season, but he’d later return to the majors with the New York Giants, becoming the only player to integrate two MLB teams.
The Brooklyn Dodgers send Marine Corps vet Dan Bankhead to the mound, making him the first Black major league pitcher. He also homers in his first at-bat — another first for Black athletes.
President Harry Truman signs a 400-word executive order aimed at desegregating the country’s military, but it’s not until 1954 that the last all-Black unit is abolished.
Alice Coachman recognized and nurtured her athletic gifts at a young age and trained however she could, often running shoeless along Georgia dirt roads or rigging up apparatus to practice her jumping.
Coachman’s skills earn her numerous amateur records and take her to Tuskegee and Albany State. When she gets her chance to perform on a world stage at the 1948 Olympics, Coachman does not disappoint. She clears 5 feet, 6 ⅛ inches on her first jump, capturing the gold medal. It is the first gold medal for an African American woman, and the only one an American woman took home in 1948.
Her win made her a celebrity in America, and in 1952 she was signed as a spokesperson by the Coca-Cola Co., becoming the first African American woman to endorse an international product. The campaign featured her prominently on billboards with 1936 Olympic winner Jesse Owens.
In the years since her win, Black women have made up most of the U.S. women’s Olympic track and field teams. She reflected, “I think I opened the gate for all of them. Whether they think that or not, they should be grateful to someone in the Black race who was able to do these things.”
Quotable “If I had gone to the games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.” Alice Coachman
Hall of Famer Joe Perry joins the San Francisco 49ers as the team’s first Black player. He said in 2003 that it was “harder [than Jackie Robinson’s] because in football, there’s so much physical contact.”
Mel Groomes, pictured, and Bob Mann suit up for the Detroit Lions. Groomes would join the Air Force after a brief NFL career, while Mann, who believed he had been blackballed by the league, would bring a collusion suit against the NFL in 1950.
The nose is proud and seems to welcome the viewer to the bronze bust’s wide smile, balanced forever on the plateau of jaw and chin. It is the first likeness in the Pro Football Hall of Fame not of a white man, and Emlen Tunnell’s hairline and Afro are perfect.
Tunnell’s play for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers put him in Canton, Ohio, and made him one of the six safeties on the NFL’s All-Time team, and he also led his University of Toledo basketball team to the 1943 NIT finals. That was after suffering a broken neck midseason during a game.
The Philadelphia-area native left college to enlist, but his neck injury brought rejections from both the Army and Navy before he joined the Coast Guard. He served from 1943 to 1946 and received lifesaving medals twice after rescuing shipmates, once from the sea and once from a fire, which left Tunnell burned.
Tunnell played football in the service and returned to college football at Iowa, but left after one season in 1947 to find a way to make his talents pay.
Tunnell talked his way into a tryout in New York and signed a $5,000 contract with the Giants.
“[I was the] first Black everything,” Tunnell said in 1975 of his time in New York. “Player, scout, talent scout, assistant coach and first full-time Black assistant in the whole league.”
- By the Numbers $5,000
- The total amount of Tunnell’s one-year contract, plus a $500 bonus
Don Newcombe makes his first major league start for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is the first Black pitcher to dominate big league batters and the first Cy Young Award winner.
Hank Thompson, pictured, is the first Black batter to face a Black pitcher when Don Newcombe’s Brooklyn Dodgers play the New York Giants, the second team that Thompson integrated.
Juanita Hall is the first African American performer to receive a Tony Award, for best featured actress in a musical, as Bloody Mary in South Pacific.
After going through a sham tryout for the Boston Red Sox with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams in 1945, Sam Jethroe debuts for the Boston Braves as the team’s first Black player.
United States Lawn Tennis Association officials accept 23-year-old Harlem native Althea Gibson into their annual championship at Forest Hills, New York, making her the first African American player to compete in a U.S. tennis tour.
Earl Lloyd becomes the first Black player in an NBA game when he takes the court for the Washington Capitols. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Chuck Cooper, the first Black player drafted to the league, plays his first NBA game with the Boston Celtics. He was also the first Black hooper to compete in a college basketball game below the Mason-Dixon Line. Cooper said he and others “had it easy compared to the turmoil [Robinson] lived through.”
Chicago schoolboy legend Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton plays his first game for the New York Knicks as one of the first Black players in the NBA. Signing his $2,500 contract made him the first Black man to secure an NBA bag, and he would emerge as the league’s first Black impact player.
Bob Mann plays his first game with the Green Bay Packers, the second team he’d integrate. Green Bay teammates noted the stress that Jim Crow conditions caused Mann on the road.
After five hate-filled games played, Hank DeZonie would walk away from the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, an Atlanta Hawks predecessor, recalling later, “it was more fun playing in the schoolyard.”
“The Cuban Comet” Minnie Minoso, the first Black athlete on the White Sox, played his first game, marking his first of five stints with Chicago in 17 MLB seasons.
Betty Chapman drives in two runs in her debut for the Admiral Music Maids of the National Girls Baseball League, which allowed “colored” softball players, including Chapman, Chinese American Gwen Wong and Japanese American Nancy Ito.
In his final fighting appearance, the great Joe Louis, right, is knocked out by Rocky Marciano. Louis finishes his boxing career with a 66-3-0 record with an incredible 52 knockouts.
Jump shot pioneer Davage Minor, left, and Hall of Famer Don Barksdale, right, play their first game for the original Baltimore Bullets franchise that folded in 1954. The pair met while in the U.S. Army during World War II and played UCLA, Olympic and AAU hoops together.
Alcorn A&M’s (now Alcorn State) Jack Spinks, No. 62, takes the field for the Steelers. He’s one of the first two African Americans to compete in Pittsburgh since the 1930s and the first Black man from Mississippi in the NFL.
Halfbacks Ralph Goldston, pictured, and Don Stevens break the Philadelphia Eagles’ color barrier and play their first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I didn’t find out I was the first [Black player] until I was there awhile,” Goldston recalled, “It wasn’t a big deal.”
Dallas sought the legitimacy that pro football would bring a growing city, but for Texas, which embraced Jim Crow segregation while simultaneously portraying to the rest of the country that it was different from other Southern states, supporting the team would force white fans to confront their prejudices. Undaunted, or merely brash, Giles Miller purchases the New York Yanks, who had been integrated the previous season by George Taliaferro and Buddy Young, and relocates the franchise to Dallas. He quickly makes his position clear, stating, “Places on our team are open strictly on the basis of ability without regard to race or creed.”
White fans in Dallas refuse to support the integrated team — the University of Texas wouldn’t field Black players until 18 years later — and Black fans are driven away by segregated seats in the sun with an obstructed view of the field. When promises to remedy the seating situation aren’t kept, Black fans stop coming, leaving the cavernous Cotton Bowl nearly empty.
If the public relations efforts are bad, the on-field product is abhorrent. After the season the Texans are dissolved, and from their ashes the upstart Baltimore Colts rise. In his two seasons with Baltimore, Taliaferro placed among the NFL’s total yards leaders. Young is acknowledged as the first Colt to have his number (22) retired. He became the first Black NFL executive when he was hired by the league office in 1964, serving as director of player relations.
Quotable “George helped change the landscape of football much the way Jackie Robinson did for baseball. Every African American in the NFL owes a debt of gratitude to George.” Excerpt from Tony Dungy’s foreword in the book Taliaferro
The Chicago Bears and Cubs on the city’s North Side are still segregated when Ollie Matson, pictured, and Cliff “Doc” Anderson play the first game of the season for the NFL’s Cardinals, the second South Side team to be integrated.
Eddie Macon finally breaks the Bears’ race wall, three years after Chicago made George Taliaferro the first Black player to be selected in the NFL draft. Taliaferro chose the AAFC over the NFL.
Six years after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ historic hiring of Jackie Robinson, Bob Trice finally sees some brotherly love the first time he pitches for the then-Philadelphia Athletics, the eighth team to be integrated.
Ernie Banks begins his legendary Chicago Cubs career. Banks once said that before the majors, “My whole world was in the Black community … when the Cubs called me up, I really didn’t want to go.”
Rookie second baseman Curt Roberts starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He never hits well in three big league seasons, but the fluent Spanish speaker mentors a young Roberto Clemente.
Struggles with undiagnosed mental illness stunt the major league career of Tom Alston, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first Black player, who played his first game with the team in 1954. He spent parts of four years with the organization.
Most major league teams had Black players before Cincinnati finally fielded Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, but within two years the Reds franchise would have eight Black players, the most in the league.
In a 1935 interview with Black sports writer Sam Lacy, Clark Griffith, the slick-talking owner of the Washington Senators, responded to the suggestion that he hire Black players by saying that desegregation would destroy the Negro Leagues and “put about 400 colored guys out of work.” It would take almost 20 years and a name change for his team, now the Minnesota Twins, to field its first Black player, Carlos Paula.
Jackie Moore earned his bona fides on the hardtops of Philadelphia, at Overbrook High, and at La Salle College, becoming the first Black player at the then-powerhouse program. “La Salle took a stand since I was there, and I was the only Black player on the team that wherever we went, I had to stay with the team, eat with the team, period,” Moore said. “That wasn’t negotiable.”
After college, Moore lands with the Philadelphia Warriors as the first Black player for the hometown pros. His career statistics are unremarkable, but as a member of the Warriors’ 1956 title team, he became just the third Black man to win an NBA ring.
After his playing days, Moore began a second career in service to others. His first project was to impart some of his basketball smarts on a raw, young Overbrook athlete named Wilt Chamberlain. Stephen Cozen, the Overbrook coach’s son, said, “Basically, Jackie Moore taught Wilt Chamberlain how to play the game.”
Moore moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1970s. He’s worked with people with financial struggles, mental health problems and as a counselor for people recovering from substance abuse. “The reward was seeing some of them get themselves straightened out and becoming somewhat successful,” he said.
Even after retiring in 2000, Moore volunteered to drive people to dialysis appointments. Most of the people who ride with him every week have no idea their driver is a trailblazing athlete, winner and teacher.
Quotable “You know, the strange thing is, I didn’t even think of being the first or being a pioneer. I was just doing something I liked to do.” Jackie Moore
To finish the season when the Syracuse Nationals’ owner brought the shot clock to the NBA, teammates Jim Tucker, third from left, and Earl Lloyd, fourth from left, become the first African Americans to win an NBA championship.
The New York Yankees had a winning tradition before fielding any Black players, but after Elston Howard joins the team, they reach the World Series in nine of the next 10 seasons.
Mamie Till said, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” The unsettling sight of her son Emmett’s body in the open casket makes his killing one of America’s most infamous hate crimes.
In the team’s eighth NBA season and after five championships, the Minneapolis Lakers sign their first Black player, burly rebounder Bob Williams, who played his first game in 1955.
Penn State grad Jesse Arnelle was the first African American student body president of any majority-white university, months before he starts playing for the Fort Wayne Pistons as their first Black team member.
Seamstress Rosa Parks’ refusal to give her bus seat to a white man sparks a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that lasts for 381 days.
Like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and many of the Black men who integrated Major League Baseball, Ann Gregory had dominated her chosen sport during the years that she was limited to segregated competition. In 1950, she won six of the seven tournaments she entered on the United Golf Association (UGA) tour, the premier Black golf circuit, and was dubbed “The Queen of Negro Women’s Golf” by the newspapers. She spent a half-decade atop the UGA’s women’s rankings before becoming the first African American woman to enter a United States Golf Association-sponsored event when she tees off in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis.
Gregory had always been athletic and had starred in amateur tennis tournaments around her home in Gary, Indiana, but was only introduced to golf when she married Leroy Percy Gregory in 1938. He was an avid golfer who devoted so much time to the links that his new bride considered divorcing him. But when he left to serve in World War II, she missed him so much that she learned how to play his favorite game. By the time Leroy Gregory returned in 1945, she had become an accomplished golfer.
Gregory faced harsh discrimination in the country club culture of golf. She was mistaken for a maid at one USGA event, and wasn’t permitted in the clubhouse for a contestants’ dinner at another. Despite the rudeness and threats she faced, her attitude was always the same: “Racism is their problem.”
Her golfing career ended in 1989 when, at age 76, she defeated a field of 50 women to win a gold medal at the U.S. National Senior Olympic Games, dominating her competitors by 44 strokes.
- By the Numbers 44
- Gregory’s age when she competed in the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship
Just months after being assaulted onstage by white supremacists, Nat King Cole becomes the first Black host of a weekly national TV show on NBC.
Jackie Robinson retires when the Dodgers trade him to the New York Giants, choosing a life as an advocate for Black workers rather than joining a new team.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ stubborn fight against desegregation ends when Afro-Cuban shortstop Humberto “Chico” Fernandez starts on Opening Day. He was joined six days later by John Kennedy, the team’s first African American player.
The federal government ramps up its resistance to Southern segregation when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends troops to ensure that nine Black high school students can safely attend public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Willie O’Ree’s grandparents used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery in the United States and flee to Canada. Their bravery and toughness was carried onto the ice by their grandson. Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, he took to the national game quickly, and, in the beginning, did not feel the racial animus he would experience as an adult. He wrote in The Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer: “The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”
O’Ree suffered a serious eye injury as a junior player and lost most of the vision in his right eye. He ignored a doctor’s advice to quit the sport he loved, and hid his injury, knowing that partial blindness would make him ineligible for the NHL. To compensate for his blindness while playing left wing, O’Ree had to turn his head far over his right shoulder.
While playing for an integrated minor league team with a working relationship with the Boston Bruins, O’Ree makes history when he becomes the first Black athlete to play in an NHL game. Three seasons later, he was the first Black player to score an NHL goal in a 3–2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
- By the Numbers 22
- O’Ree’s jersey number was retired by the Boston Bruins on Feb. 18, 2021. His No. 22 hangs in the TD Garden rafters with 12 others.
Ozzie Virgil, the first Major League player born in the Dominican Republic, integrates the Detroit Tigers. In 2006, an airport was named after the Marine Corps vet in his homeland.
Charlie Sifford defies overt discrimination in golf to reach the U.S. Open. Two more years would pass before he was allowed to compete on the PGA Tour.
The Boston Red Sox are the final original MLB team to integrate when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green enters a game, more than 14 years after the sham workout the team had given three Black players.
African Americans continue to use nonviolence to focus attention on the denial of their civil rights, when four college students refuse to leave a “whites only” lunch counter after being refused service in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Wilma Rudolph is the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, for the 100- and 200-meter events and the 4×100-meter relay.
Young Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, wins his first professional boxing match. He would later convert to Islam, renounce his “slave name” and become Muhammad Ali, the historic standard for athlete activism.
Brave Freedom Riders embark on the first test of laws outlawing segregation in interstate transportation facilities. They would face months of violence throughout the Deep South before the John Kennedy administration was forced to take federal action.
Jackie Robinson, the pioneer of racial equality in sports, enters the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, making him the first African American person enshrined in a major sports Hall of Fame.
Fifty-five NFL, AFL, MLB, NBA and NHL teams hired Black players before Bobby Mitchell, No. 49, debuted for the Washington Redskins.