Black History Month: Recognizing Sports Pioneers

 

With apologies to the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps no other African American in U.S. history made a bigger impact on the country’s social fabric than the late Jackie Robinson. And with February hailed as “Black History Month,” now is the time to pay tribute to some of sports’ most influential players of color. Their coveted signatures, as you might imagine, are something to behold, especially those authenticated by PSA/DNA.

Jackie Robinson

In 1945, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was a first-year Negro league player for the Kansas City Monarchs who was handpicked by then-Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey to possibly join the Dodgers’ roster. Initially assigned to the Montreal Royals – the Dodgers’ International League affiliate – the 26-year-old infielder made his way to Brooklyn in short order and was the team’s starting first baseman on April 15, 1947, when “Dem Bums” hosted the Boston Braves in the season opener. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier that day and would go on to endure a season’s worth of bigotry and racial slurs yelled at him by opponents, fans in the stands, even some umpires. Incredibly, he was also subjected to prejudice from his own teammates. But Robinson resisted the verbal deluge of insults and went on to be named MLB’s Rookie of the Year at season’s end after batting .297 with 175 hits and 29 stolen bases. He also helped Brooklyn reach its first World Series since 1941 that same season.

A military veteran who put up with his share of racism and ignorance during his two-year (1942 to ’44) stint in the U.S. Army, Robinson had the mental makeup that Rickey sought. The Dodgers GM recognized quality on the field, but in finding an African-American who could improve Brooklyn’s lineup while at the same time make baseball history, he needed a man who could withstand the unrelenting taunts. Rickey was looking for someone “with guts enough to not fight back.” Robinson was that man. He stood 5’ 11” tall, weighed 195 pounds and possessed the heart of a lion. A former three-sport star at UCLA (baseball, football and track-and-field), Robinson was certainly the athlete Rickey was searching for. Not only did Robinson endure the living hell he was subjected to, he survived it. Two years later, playing at second base, he helped the Dodgers reach the World Series again and was named the National League’s MVP. His successful arrival on the MLB stage had opened the door for more African-American players to enter. His impact didn’t rest solely with baseball, however. As a civil rights spokesman, Robinson’s impact on Major League Baseball helped persuade other professional sports leagues to be more inclusive.

Naturally, Robinson’s signature is in high demand. Although he was generous to fans during his playing days and signed readily when requests were made, he died of a heart attack in 1972 at the young age of 53. Therefore, demand for his autograph certainly outweighs supply. What’s good to know is that Robinson almost always signed items that were sent to him through the mail, and seldom will you find a “ghost-signed” Jackie autograph on a flat piece of paper (index card, postcard, Type 1 photo, etc.). A nicely preserved Robinson single-signed baseball routinely fetches as much as $15,000 at auction. You can tell by his beautiful penmanship that Jackie took great pride in signing his name.

He retired from baseball at the age of 37 following the 1956 season with a career batting average of .311. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 in his first year of eligibility as his name appeared on 124 of the 160 ballots cast. On April 15, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his momentous MLB debut, the league permanently retired Robinson’s uniform number 42. Nowadays, on April 15 each season, all major league players don his iconic No. 42. A fitting tribute to a deserving man.

Marion Motley

Truth be told, Marion Motley, a 6′ 1,” 232-pound fullback and linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, technically became one of the first two African-American players to compete in professional football a full year before Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball. A standout fullback at the University of Nevada from 1941 to ’43, Motley went undrafted by the NFL. Three years later, however, he was recruited by legendary football coach Paul Brown to try out for the Cleveland Browns of the newly formed All-America Football Conference (AAFC). The 26-year-old rookie made an immediate impact. During his eight seasons with the Browns, which included four seasons in the NFL once the team transitioned from the AAFC, Motley rushed for 4,712 yards, averaging an amazing 5.7 yards per carry. His yards-per-carry average still remains atop the NFL’s record books. In the mid-1950s, after ending his playing career for good, Motley asked Brown about a coaching job with the team. Brown turned him away, saying Motley should instead go look for work at a local steel mill in Canton. He visited the Browns in 1965 and once again inquired about any coaching vacancies with the team. He was told there were none. Despite his many accomplishments on the gridiron and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, Motley was never given an opportunity to coach in the NFL. He died of prostate cancer in 1999. He was 79.

Based on his football prowess, however, hobbyists still seek out his signature. A Motley autograph is always high on want lists for historical football collectors. His overpowering ball carrying skills on the field was apparently mirrored by his powerful, slashing style with his autograph. Surprisingly, his scrawl is quite affordable based on the following industry prices provided by Sports Market Report: single-signed football, $175; single-signed jersey, $150; and photo, $45.

For the record, the other African American football player in Cleveland during the 1946 season was Bill Willis, a tough defensive tackle who roomed with Motley. Both players competed for the Browns  through the end of the 1953 campaign. Like Motley, Willis was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, albeit nine years later.

Earl Lloyd

Desegregation in professional sports was in motion, although both basketball and hockey did take a while longer to cross their respective color barriers. In the world of hoops, Earl Lloyd of Alexandria, Virginia, was the first African-American player to compete in an NBA game. A two-time All-America selection during his college career at West Virginia State, Lloyd was ready for his historic debut. The date was Oct. 31, 1950, and the 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound small forward suited up that night for the then-Washington Capitols when the team traveled to Rochester, New York, to square off against the Royals. Although the Capitols dropped a 78-70 decision to the host team, fans and fellow athletes took notice as Lloyd drained both of his field goal attempts and two of three free throw attempts to finish the night with six points. Nicknamed “Big Cat,” he played in just seven games that first season, but competed in the league up until 1960. He went on to play for both the Syracuse Nationals as well as the Detroit Pistons and finished his nine-year NBA career averaging 26.2 minutes, 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He eventually coached the Detroit Pistons in 1971 and ’72 and was rightfully inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. He passed away on Feb. 26, 2015, at the age of 86.

Despite his historical claim to fame, Lloyd’s autograph is incredibly inexpensive. A scan of industry auction houses reveals that a signed 8×10 photo of Lloyd, authenticated by PSA/DNA, recently sold for just $60, while a basketball, signed and inscribed “HOF 2003” by Lloyd, fetched only $275.

Willie O’Ree

In hockey, a Canadian-born player by the name of Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier when he laced up as a winger for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins won that night, 3-0, playing inside the Montreal Forum. O’Ree played in just two games that season, but came back in 1961 to compete in 43 contests for the Bruins, scoring four goals and registering 10 assists. The majority of his 21-year professional hockey career was spent competing in the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he led the league in goals scored in both the 1964-65 and 1968-69 campaigns. He also played 50 games for the American Hockey League’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1972–73. Most of O’Ree’s playing time was spent with either the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades or the San Diego Gulls, the latter team actually retired his number, which now hangs from the rafters inside the Pechanga Arena (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena). O’Ree continued to play in the minors until the age of 43.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in November 2018. Now 83 years old, O’Ree remains the longest living member of this incredible lineup of sports pioneers. Following his momentous debut in 1958, it would take another 16 years before the second minority player, Mike Marson, stepped onto NHL ice. Today, there are 25 players of color competing in the NHL. Although living in San Diego and still signing today – at industry shows and league-sponsored functions – O’Ree’s autographed trading cards are considered quite rare. A longtime member of the NHL/USA Diversity Task Force, Willie continues in his quest for racial equality in sports and life.

Each of these men dealt with discrimination during the course of their respective careers, but all of them persevered long enough to make a difference. PSA salutes these great pioneers of sports.

Posted by Terry Melia

Terry Melia is a hobby veteran who has served in various PR and marketing roles for industry movers and shakers including The Upper Deck Company and SCP Auctions and is currently working as PSA's Public Relations Specialist.

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